Talk around town last week included the news about an 84-year-old widow who claimed the largest undivided lottery jackpot in history worth $590 million dollars. Some people traveling to graduations in May stopped at small towns multiple times to buy tickets. It seems everyone is a winner. People are going to spend money on entertainment. And, Arkansas can help send aspiring qualified students to college with a portion of those entertainment dollars.
Everyone is not a winner. The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery (ASL) funds dreams of graduating from college on the backs of the poor. We were told that was not true before the vote to change the state constitution was cast. The facts say otherwise. In a report to President Clinton’s National Gambling Impact Study Commission, two Duke University professors concluded in a watershed lottery report that “academic studies show that lower-income and lesser-educated citizens are more heavily represented among lottery players than any other categories.” Analysis of the Georgia Hope Lottery in 2003, the Tennessee lottery scholarship program in 2006, the Texas lottery and those who play the Ohio state lottery all support this conclusion.
We live in a society where people are free to make their own decisions and receive the consequences from those decisions. Sadly, until recently the solid consensus was that the role of government was to protect its citizens not prey upon them. There is no other conclusion to draw from the harsh reality that everyone, including those who can least afford it, are encouraged to buy lottery tickets. The hope of one big score, an easy way out of poverty, and the fulfillment of “all my dreams” too often outweighs the cold hard facts that the odds of winning the grand prize is 1 in 175,223,510. The odds of being struck by lightning are much greater than winning the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery according to the National Weather Service; 1 in 5,000.
The lottery, like other forms of gambling, leaves a trail of broken promises, broken dreams, and broken lives. Students counting on a set promised amount of financial help from the ASL continue to face an uncertain future. From the beginning not everyone who qualified received funds. Those that do risk the amount promised diminishing. Arkansans can take pride in the quick and sacrificial actions of those Arkansas educational institutions promising to cover the shortfall for the next year. At least a student has time to plan their course of action.
Paul Greenberg wrote nearly three years ago, “If the state’s goal had only been to set up a scholarship fund, it would have been a lot simpler and fairer, and more straightforward, if the Legislature had just passed another tax. If, say, it had tacked a couple of extra bucks onto the cost of a driver’s license. Instead, the voters-that’s you and me, bub-added a whole new, and mighty expensive, layer of bureaucracy to state government…. It’s not cheap, running a statewide numbers racket.” In 2010 and 2011 the ASL spent 82 and 93 million dollars respectively to run the lottery.
The ASL is a poor investment. It is Robin Hood in reverse preying upon those who can least afford it. Trusting in the lottery is a poor substitute for putting hope in God and His ability to lead every life into fulfillment and substance. God calls on us to care for the poor, not just ourselves. Through the prophet Micah God requires everyone “To act justly and to love mercy (i.e. from the heart, to protect the weak, love kindness), and to walk humbly with your God.”
It is never too late to do the right thing. Helping those who dream of a better life through a college education is the right thing to do. Funding it in large measure from the pockets of the poor is not.