The Audacity of Stealing Hope

Lotteries don't work for poor people.

In most cases, lotteries are designed to take poor people's money. In every case, lotteries are designed to take away something more important than the money of the poor; their hope. With the nation's eye on police brutality and the killing of Black bodies, attention has been turned to city governments making extra money off the indigent via unlawful ticketing, fines and fees. Yet little attention has been given to how lotteries are engineered to prey on the indigent and the various ways it happens.

Currently, lotteries are sanctioned in all states except for six (Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah), Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and in the District of Columbia. Lotteries in the United States date back to the original thirteen colonies where they were used to help with raising money for the colonies. Yet lotteries weren't always looked at favorably. In 1821, the United States Supreme Court upheld a criminal ruling of the Virginia courts that convicted two men who used their private firm to sell tickets to a public lottery. The public opinion about lotteries decreased after the ruling. By 1860, lotteries were illegal in all but three states; giving rise to illegal lottery activities by organized crime. Such activities were especially active in poor Black communities; where the illegal lottery or numbers game was as akin to life as breathing. What made the numbers game so popular for poor folks was that you could play for a penny, if you won you didn't have to pay any income tax and if you didn't have any money to pay or play, your bookie would extend you credit.

In 1934, the first government sponsored lottery took place in Puerto Rico and the nation hasn't looked back. According to Reuters, in 2009, states raised $17.6 billion from lottery proceeds to help with their state budgets. In 2014, Americans spent $70 billion on the lottery. The biggest losers are the poor. Poor people play the lottery more than those who are not poor. The poorest third of households buy half of all lotto tickets, according to a Duke University study in the 1980s, in part because lotteries are advertised most aggressively in poorer neighborhoods. Conservative politicians argue that government programs are a waste of tax payer dollars to help those who pay little or no taxes. Yet social programs designed to help the poor are essentially supplemented by the purchase of lottery tickets by the poor; if not outright paid for by the poor. As a society, we often shame the poor for facilitating their own predicament as a result of their own poor choices. The reality is government sponsored lotteries prey on the hope, and in many cases desperation, of the poor in the name of public good. This fits what the researchers call the "desperation hypothesis": States are making their most hopeless citizens addicted to gambling to pay for government services.

Government sponsored lotteries for cold hard cash aren't the only way the indigent are preyed upon. Public housing lotteries set up poor folks for a huge disappoint if they are not chosen for the opportunity to move into better quality housing in a better neighborhood. Individuals who live in substandard living conditions and crime ridden areas are concerned with their health and safety. Housing lotteries create fantasies for the poor; fantasies which are the baseline expectations of those who are not poor. And like lottery winners born poor and ill-equip to handle the pitfalls that come along with sudden riches, so too are housing lottery winners ill-equip to handle the racism and prejudice that come along with moving to a location where the people may not want to live among them. A Good illustration of this is the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero.

Worse than government sponsored lotteries for money or public housing lotteries are lotteries for entry into a school as an alternative to a low-performing school. I didn't have to watch Waiting for Superman to see firsthand how some families win and some lose. As a teacher in an inner-city charter school, I saw the expressions on the faces of students and parents when their numbers were called and also when they weren't. No student was more deserving than any other that fateful night, yet all futures cannot be reassured with the promise of a quality education. All children who attend school in a low-performing school deserve a quality education, yet the cost and politics associated with addressing the injustice found in black and brown communities is too much for policymakers. Rather than invest in the futures of students in poor communities, policymakers choose to invest in their perpetual and generational misery via lotteries.

State sponsored lotteries say a few things to the poor. First they tell the poor that your money is good enough but not you. They also tell the poor that the only thing guaranteed in your life is your ability to dream, not your ability to succeed. Lastly, lotteries say to the poor that the government giveth and the government taketh away; for every initiative designed to help you lace up your own bootstraps, the temptation of the playing the lottery will remain present to unlace those bootstraps.

Conservatives and respectability politics people will say it's the fault of poor people for engaging in activities such as the lottery when they can't afford to. Unfortunately, poor people cannot afford the vices of the fiscally fortunate, such as bashing poor people for being poor while calling it a moral and intellectual argument. Poor people have a hard enough time being poor without being teased by the state while watching the Wall Street take advantage of the poor and not be prosecuted for it. But then again, the odds aren't in the favor of the poor.

Unfortunately, their hope is used against them also.