Do Lotteries Prey On The Hopes Of The Poor?

Written By TJ McBride on November 9, 2022
Lotteries seem to be designed to prey on poor.

Almost everyone has felt the urge to buy a lottery ticket when a jackpot swells. Players dream of how the money would change their lives.

Whether intentionally or not, state lotteries prey on that hope. Many times, it’s the poorest people and the poorest communities that pay the highest price.

Poorest dream the most about winning

California is one of the most popular places in the nation to play the lottery. The state boasts more than 20,000 retail locations to buy California lottery tickets, and winners won more than $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2020-21.

Who hasn’t considered how their lives would change if they somehow managed to pick those six numbers perfectly? It’s that combination of hope and fantasy that drives people to buy lottery tickets. They see themselves as that one lucky individual to hit it big on a single wager.

State lotteries a form of systemic racism

Creating a lottery system inherently carries risk and the potential for systemic racism bleeding into the industry. There is a darker side to state lotteries that are not apparent on their face.

In an interview with NPR, Les Bernal, the national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, explains:

“State lotteries are the most neglected example of systemic racism in the United States than any other issue or problem, I should say, in our country.”

Basic logic proves Bernal’s point. Anecdotally, people with less money will have less options, which could push them to the lottery in order to turn around their bad fortune. That carries complicated layers into the argument.

Many of the systems that run this country stack the odds against those in low-income areas and minority groups. This includes lottery systems. They focus on lower-income areas for a consistent stream of profit, and that opens the pathway to dependence on gambling.

Lotteries use ‘predatory practices,’ Bernal says

According to Bernal, through marketing and advertising, state lotteries use “predatory practices” to specifically target lower-income areas made up primarily of minorities. Most times, there are no regulations in place that prohibit targeting low-income areas.

That opens the gateway to dependency on gambling for people who are already at risk financially, Timothy Fond told NPR. He’s the co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“There are people who do develop unhealthy relationships with the lottery,” he said, “and they develop a gambling use disorder.”

Bernal said lotteries target players through positive messaging.

“There’s a tremendous amount of advertising and marketing that is pro-lottery. Even on my Twitter feeds, I see this a lot … you know, very positive messaging that come with it.”

Retailers more prevalent in poor neighborhoods

Researchers from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found that state lottery retailers are disproportionately centered in lower-income areas. Some states have state lottery retailers focused specifically in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

This is playing out in real time in Texas. For the 12th consecutive year, the Texas Lottery has broken its sales record. Scratch ticket games accounted for a whopping 81.1% of sales despite the pandemic hurting so many middle- and lower-income families.

While the Texas Lottery brags about its record-breaking year and the money it raised for education and veterans programs, there is real worry. Is the $6.7 billion it generated during a pandemic from scratch ticket games just “predatory practices” at play, Bernal wondered. Fond said safeguards must be put in place.

“What we are talking about are gambling industry practices that are clearly designed to take advantage of vulnerable or adverse communities. Why are you selling a potentially addictive product that we know doesn’t generate wealth and income for anybody? Should there be caps on that?”

Contributions could be creating inequalities

Evidence of lotteries’ upside-down systems does not stop there. Originally, state lotteries were created to fund education and infrastructure. Research by Howard Center shows some lotteries are creating inequalities. They “disproportionately benefit” college students and colleges that are not in need of assistance by taking money from lower-income areas whose residents play the lottery and are actually in need of that help.

Gregory W. Sullivan, former Massachusetts inspector general and now the research director for the Pioneer Institute, said good intentions are actually hurting low-income people.

“Poor people are collateral damage to a cause of raising money for what legislators feel is good purposes: public safety, local schools.”

Bernal agreed.

“You have low-income people essentially paying for college scholarships for the middle-class and upper-class families to go to college. It’s the American dream completely in reverse.”

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TJ McBride

T.J. McBride is a writer and reporter based in Denver. He covers the gaming landscape across multiple states in addition to his main beat covering the NBA's Denver Nuggets. His NBA work can be found at several major media outlets including ESPN, FiveThirtyEight and Bleacher Report.

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