Published on -1/23/2013, 11:13 AM
I was disturbed by the Jan. 16 guest editorial describing how a struggling family, behind on their bills, was miraculously saved by a $100,000 scratch-off ticket.
Although I am happy for this family, I cringe at the thought of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of readers in similar financial situations who will now run down to the convenience store and spend the few dollars they have in their pockets thinking that the a Kansas Lottery scratch-off will be the answer to all their financial woes.
As someone who wrote their master's thesis on the Texas Lottery, teaches statistics at a local college and is familiar with the laws of probability, I feel I must share some things about state lotteries that are not reflected in the guest editorial. First of all, the lottery is the popular form of gambling in our society in which the player has the least probability of coming out ahead. Typically, only about 50 percent of the money taken in ticket sales is redistributed in prize money. In comparison, casino games typically pay back well more than 90 percent. The government would never let a casino extract this much profit from its unwitting patrons. But if the government does it, it's OK.
With only a 50 percent payback, the typical lottery player will soon find themselves in a hole from which they can never recover. A select few will, like the family in the article, hit a large jackpot and get ahead, temporarily. Granted, it may take a while to purchase $100,000 worth of scratch-off tickets, but after you have hit big like that once, you know you are lucky and can do it again. And with tickets selling for as much as $20, purchasing just five tickets per day, the $100,000 would be gone in about six years. With $100,000 in your pocket, one could easily purchase at a much higher rate. Second, my research showed the state lottery to be a highly regressive tax. In other words, among lottery players, the poorer you are, the more likely you will be paying a higher percentage of your income to the state from the 50 percent they keep from ticket purchases. This is all occurring during a time when the Kansas Legislature is also shifting the income tax burden down to the lower income levels.
Obviously, many Kansas have no problem with shifting the tax burden to the lower classes. Why else would they vote for the legislators who just did this? But given that the poor are more likely to find themselves in desperate financial situations and are also less likely to have the education needed to understand the laws of probability, to me it seems a cruel trick to offer the "promise" of a way out that is much more likely to result in even less money to pay bills and buy groceries.
Articles describing the "lucky" few who purchase these incredibly rare jackpot tickets only feed the delusion that the lottery is the magic genie that will make the poor rich and solve all of their problems.