In 1990, Zell Miller, running for governor of Georgia, figured out a way to increase spending on education without raising taxes: create a lottery to fund scholarships for high school achievers. Miller's proposal, "Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally" (HOPE), caught on and helped sweep him into office.
HOPE works. It has financed higher education for hundreds of thousands of students in Georgia. It also seems wondrously simple: a voluntary tax (no one is forced to buy lottery tickets) to fund a clear, concise, and universally acclaimed goal. Every high school student in Georgia with at least a B average now has the opportunity to attend one of Georgia's universities; if they keep up their Bs in college, they're funded until graduation. HOPE brought Miller national attention, and numerous state governments are considering copying the program.
But despite HOPE's success, there's a trap in its seeming simplicity. Lotteries aren't taxes, but they certainly aren't free. They compromise values, feed a very dangerous industry, and end up snuffing out the success of even the most well-intentioned initiatives. Other states should copy the educational blueprint of the HOPE program, but they shouldn't copy the funding.
By adopting lotteries, state governments put themselves in the awkward and self-defeating position of having to betray the values that they usually hold dear. Lottery officials rely on deceptive advertising of the sort that state governments normally try to harness. The whole business of lotteries depends on convincing people that their number might come up--in fact that their number will come up if only they play enough. After all, lottery officials reason, if people don't buy tickets there isn't as much money to fund education.
The result is advertising like one television spot in Connecticut that showed a smiling young man:
When I was younger, I suppose I could have done more to plan my future. But I didn't. I guess I could have put some money aside. But I didn't. Or I could have made some smart investments. But I didn't. Heck, I could have bought a Connecticut Lotto ticket, won a jackpot worth millions, and gotten a nice big check every year for 20 years. And I did! I won!"A voice-over followed as the young man grinned, "Overall chance of winning is one in 30." One in 30, of course, was the chance of winning a small prize and a smile from your convenience store owner, not of striking it rich.
Unlike other sweepstakes and raffles, state lotteries are not required to publish the honest odds of winning. Why don't they? Because the odds are virtually zero. States that run lotteries also focus their efforts, and in many ways their deception, on the people who are most susceptible to their message--the people who the state normally tries the hardest to support: the poor.
States also often try to sell sloth as a way to convince potential customers that a lottery ticket offers a free ride to the high life. A 1996 Massachusetts state lottery ad contrasted two possible paths to millions on parallel sides of a poster. The first option:
"Start studying at about seven years old, real hard. Then grow up and get a good job. From then on, get up at dawn every day. Flatter your boss. Crush competition ruthlessly. Climb over backs of co-workers.. Do this every day for 30 years, holidays and weekends included. By the time you are ready to retire, you should have your money."The second option: two lottery tickets.
Worst of all, state lottery officials have incentives to turn moderate lottery players into compulsive gamblers. Five percent of the population buys 50 percent of all lottery tickets, and these people need constant fixes. Although state lotteries started out 20 years ago as simple, uninspired raffles (write your name on the back of this piece of paper and one day we will tell you if you have won), lottery officials soon realized that, in America, instant gratification sells. In due course, states started promoting instant games, supergames, and flashing casino-like games.
The worst of the lot is high paced poker played on video terminals--frequently referred to as "video crack" because of its addictive powers. "Almost without exception, my video poker patients report not excitement but anesthetized nothingness. It's a twilight-zone experience for them," says Robert Hunter, an expert on compulsive gambling. Video poker is run by the governments of eight different states. "There was one machine that I could confuse the most," said Betty Yakey to The Washington Post. Yakey, a 65-year-old widow, wiped out her grandson's college saving fund (set up by the sale of her family farm) by playing state-sponsored video poker in Louisiana for five or six hours daily. "When I played that machine, I didn't worry about nothing."
Although state lottery ads are not regulated by the FTC or the Better Business Bureau, the press, particularly television, has not stepped in to play a watchdog role. One would be hard-pressed to find a TV station that explains the insane odds against winning when showing lottery drawings on the 7 o'clock news or that reports on state lottery ads with the same vigor with which it peers into political campaign commercials. There have been some exceptions, but the trend veers away from intense scrutiny.
The euphoric side of lotteries does of course fit better into our common television format: One winner jumping and screaming plays better than 20 million poor saps kicking the floor after they lose; a busty woman picking glowing balls out of a hopper has more appeal if there isn't a voice in the background explaining the futility of the charade. But another explanation for this one-sided coverage deserves consideration. State lotteries spend more than half a billion dollars a year on advertising. And, like lottery advertisers who can justify their machinations by the greater good created in the long run (manipulative advertising may be bad, but it does help education), the news media have the same argument on hand.
Unfortunately, the propaganda is getting through to Americans. According to a July 1999 poll by the Consumers Federation of America and Primericam, 27 percent of Americans believe that winning the lottery is their "best chance to obtain half a million dollars or more in [their] lifetime." This is a grim statistic that would surely change if states were to cancel their lottery ads and instead publicize the wonders of compound interest: $50 invested weekly with a 9 percent return would yield over $1 million in 40 years.