Walk into any Wisconsin convenience store during the day, and you're likely to come across a familiar scene. A thick, tattooed woman with a child in each arm plunks down $10 on Powerball tickets. A skeletal old man reeking of fortified wine spreads change out on the counter to try his luck at Megabucks millions.
It is the Wisconsin state lottery, and it is state government's way of robbing the poor without having to use a gun.
The state has hundreds of programs designed to aid low-income individuals. Any attempt to slow the growth of these programs is generally seen as an "attack on the poor." And yet the state maintains a program that does exactly the opposite. The lottery vacuums money out of the pockets of the destitute, promising them an infinitesimal shot at hitting the big time.
According to a 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon University, poor people buy twice as many lottery tickets as the affluent. This is made more troubling by the fact that a much higher percentage of the poor's income is spent chasing a near mathematical impossibility. "The hope of getting out of poverty encourages people to continue to buy tickets, even though their chances of stumbling upon a life-changing windfall are nearly impossibly slim and buying lottery tickets in fact exacerbates the very poverty that purchasers are hoping to escape," said the 2008 study.
In Wisconsin, lottery sales have proved to be recession-proof. Between 2009 and 2010, state lottery proceeds actually increased from $473.4 million to $480.9 million, despite the economy's dire state. In fact, the lottery preys on people most likely to need help in a foundering labor market. If you can't find a job, why not try the easiest shortcut?
The state lottery, authorized via constitutional amendment in 1987, has extracted $9.7 billion from participants since its inception. Lottery proceeds are supposed to go to property taxpayers to lower their bills - yet these funds mostly allow local governments to spend more without citizens burning down the Capitol building in protest.
My conservative friends dismiss my disdain for the lottery, accurately arguing that it's not the government's place to police our vices. I think smoking bans, for instance, are an egregious overreach by the nanny state.
But government regulating our vices and creating our vices are two completely separate things. By sustaining the lottery, the state makes itself an accomplice in maintaining the cycle of poverty in our cities.
In fact, the original authors of the law authorizing the lottery seemed to recognize the problems legalized gambling might cause, and put limits on how aggressively the lottery could be marketed. For instance, state law bars the use of lottery funds for "promoting" the lottery - advertising is allowed "only to inform potential participants of the lottery's existence." Yet the lottery's ads feature Ray Charles, dancing badgers and the Milwaukee Brewers' racing sausages.
The fact that the state has a lottery (43 of them do) also sets a precedent for other types of gaming in the state. When Indian tribes came to state government looking to start running casinos, they made a plausible case that the state promoted gambling to benefit itself, so they should be able to as well. It's hard for Wisconsin politicians to warn of the dangers of gambling while enabling problem gamblers themselves. (As a result, state government has to fund a program for problem gamblers - many of which they help create.)
In the early 1990s, an Illinois lottery billboard in a Chicago ghetto famously read, "THIS COULD BE YOUR TICKET OUT." And thus, the state has for decades continued to plunder the poor in the name of the poor.
Similarly, the Wisconsin lottery takes from the have-nots and gives to the haves. If we want lower property taxes, we should elect politicians that will deliver them. Wisconsin's less fortunate should be looking to the government to protect them, not rob them blind.
Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.