June 11, 2007
The Lottery: Still not a game for the rich

The good news is that rich folks do seem to be buying those new fifty-dollar scratch-off Lottery tickets, as the Texas Lottery Commission thought they would. The bad news is that they're not buying any of the other pricey scratch-off games, at least in comparison to poor folks.

Several months ago, when the Texas Lottery Commission introduced a $50 scratch-off game, agency officials expressed confidence it would draw affluent customers. But they had little to base that assumption on.

As it turns out, they were right for the first 10 days of sales, at least.

But had they mapped ticket sales of their pricier tickets for the past 12 months -- the $10, $20, $25, $30 and $50 games -- they might have discovered retailers in the state's 10 poorest ZIP codes sold $2.4 million of them, some 50 percent more than retailers in the state's 10 wealthiest ZIP codes.

Per-capita spending on the high-dollar tickets was $25 in the 10 poorest ZIP codes versus $18 in the 10 wealthiest.

That's counting the early sales data from the new $50 game, which went on sale May 7, and not including ZIP codes with a population of less than 100.

By itself, the new $50 ticket sold faster in more affluent ZIP codes.


State officials dismiss suggestions that the poor are more apt to wager money on high-dollar lottery scratch-offs.

"Because it's a poor neighborhood doesn't mean that the poor are buying the tickets," maintains Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, who oversees the Lottery Commission as chairman of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

"Before, what used to be neighborhood stores now cater to people moving through the neighborhood. I've seen it. People stop at different stores and buy their tickets," he said.

Whatever you say, Kino. I'm sure there's plenty of River Oaks matrons passing through the working-class areas every day and stopping in at the local Circle K's to stock up on scratch-off games. Makes perfect sense to me.

For the life of me, I cannot comprehend why anyone would think that rich folks would blow their spare change on high-dollar lottery tickets. Forget the value proposition, there's much better thrills available for that kind of money. And if it's the gambling aspect that's supposed to be the draw, well, that's why we have Las Vegas. I just don't get it.

One more thing:

Robert Heith, the Lottery Commission's spokesman, said the only real way to determine who is buying big-dollar tickets would be to stand "at the door (of each retailer) and ask everybody who bought a lottery ticket where they lived."

By having a lottery, Flores said, the state gives folks a product they willingly line up to buy and at the same time raises more than a billion dollars a year in revenue for public schools.

"It's like cigarettes," Flores said. "If that's what people want, let them buy it."

Critics say state-sponsored gambling wasn't as problematic when most games cost a dollar. ("Oh rats!" Gov. Ann Richards exclaimed 15 years ago when she purchased the first ticket and discovered she'd become the first lottery loser.)

"They always argued it was a harmless, little game. Spend a buck. 'Oh, I lost. Big deal,' " said David Hudson, a former Democratic state representative from Tyler who waged a bitter campaign against attempts to introduce a lottery to Texas.

Lawmakers, then voters, approved the lottery the year Hudson left office, in 1991.

The state spent $2 million the first year on programs to help problem gamblers. The state now spends zero dollars on programs for problem gamblers even as ticket prices hit the stratosphere.

"We don't encourage people to buy cigarettes," Hudson said. "We don't go out and buy billboards advertising cigarettes. But we do advertise lottery tickets. Is this the kind of thing the government ought to be engaged in?"

The pushing of this activity by the government bugs me about the Lottery, too. I have my qualms about legalizing casino gambling in this state as well, but that has more to do with the sleaziness of those who are lobbying for it than with the thought that gambling would be more widespread in Texas. Of course, selling off the Lottery to private investors raises other matters of concern, though in retrospect that was more about how it would be done than why. It's hard to keep my personal feelings about gambling separate from the question of whether or not some aspect of this is good public policy.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 11, 2007 to Jackpot!