In recent months in Maine, more and more people have lined up to bemoan the fact that state-run lotteries unfairly prey on the poor. As evidence, officials point to the extraordinarily high rates of lottery ticket sales in economically disadvantaged areas such as Washington County.
Lottery tickets, it seems, are now in the same league as other predatory practices such as sky-high credit card interest rates, payday loan outlets, unscrupulous buy-here, pay-here car dealerships and usurious rent-to-own outlets. All are buoyed by ceaseless marketing campaigns across all media platforms urging people to buy more, live larger, take a chance, reach for the brass ring.
Those who complain that the poor purchase too many lottery tickets, however, run the risk of being considered overly paternalistic. What the high percentage of lottery ticket sales in Washington County shows is not ignorance or gullibility. It suggests a large part of the population there suffers from a deep and unshakable sense of economic despair.
If officials want to reduce how much money poor people spend on lottery tickets, stop offering platitudes and help them find decent-paying jobs. Work to encourage economic growth. Offer better educational opportunities so people can get ahead without their only shot being a lottery ticket with odds of 295 million-to-1.
Governor Paul LePage is right when he says the welfare rolls in Maine are too large. The only time the state’s welfare rolls have shrunk appreciably, however, is when the economy has improved. Steadily trimming eligibility, adding exclusions, and tightening restrictions only cut the number of checks being written. They don’t move Maine forward. They don’t provide what people need the most: hope.
Leadership shouldn’t be about chastising people for buying lottery tickets. It should be about creating a sense of optimism. That’s what the people spending an inordinate amount of their income on lottery tickets in Washington County, and indeed throughout Maine, really need.