I grew up in a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey where gambling was part of every day life. Many of my relatives gambled. The guys gambled on games, and later, on horse racing, and many aunts gambled on “the number,” which was different in every neighborhood that was into gambling. I never actually knew anyone who won it, but it didn’t stop anyone from gambling.
Years later my Uncle Nick would take me to the Meadowlands when it opened. He loved the trotters, but I got into the thoroughbreds. Then, when the NJ Lottery kicked in, it put a lot of “neighborhood guys” out of business or at least, cramped their style. But, it seemed like there were more opportunities than ever before to pick that “number,” this time matching some ping pong balls that a government operated machine would spit out.
Gambling is very big business and I’m not just talking about Super Bowl betting. Right now, Powerball is really hot. Recently, the state kicked off its newest Lottery game, which has been a huge hit in just a few days. According to published reports, you basically have “a 1 in 195 million chance” of winning the Powerball grand prize, which could be millions and millions of dollars.
That’s all fine, except there are some pretty tough questions we should be asking ourselves about government sponsored gambling. When is enough enough? Where do we draw the line? How many more games of chance will the state sponsor? (Right now, it has six live drawings and countless games where you scratch off a card and hope for the best.)
Look, I’ve played the Lottery here and there, even though my game of choice skews toward Monmouth Park Race Track in the summer. But when you really take a look at the Lottery in terms of who is playing and who is spending most of the money on a 1 in a million chance of winning, can these folks really afford it? I know the state has a massive fiscal problem with a deficit even larger than our new Governor Chris Christie ever imagined. We’ve got to find new and creative ways to get this budget balanced and create some fiscal sanity in the state. But how right is it if the disproportionate number of people who buy Powerball tickets are either poor, one step away from being poor or on a very fixed income? I am talking about people who either lost their job, can’t find a job or are lucky enough to have a job even though it doesn’t pay nearly enough to support their family. I’m talking about seniors whose prescription drug costs are through the roof.
I’m not talking about somebody who spends just a buck here or there on lottery tickets, but rather guys who I’ve seen at the NJ Lottery kiosk spewing out 30, 40, 50 or even 60 combinations of numbers. And, that’s just the one time I see the guy. If someone who could barely eek out a living is spending $60 to $100 a week on the Lottery, shouldn’t that concern us just a little bit?
Research also tells us that those who play the most have the least education. Maybe they know that there is a 1 in a however many million chance they are going to win, but maybe they don’t. If they DO know, maybe they don’t care. But, the question becomes, what is the role of the State in all this? Is it enough that the government officially warns those who play the lottery that gambling could be addictive and offers assistance if someone feels they have a gambling problem? To me that’s more about covering your behind than really doing the right thing.
I know the Lottery is voluntary. No one puts a gun to anyone’s head and says you have to buy a Lottery ticket. But if it was wrong when local “wise guys” connected to organized crime in my old neighborhood were running numbers or taking bets on football games, what makes it so right if the government sponsors gambling? I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just asking whether our best rationale is the fact that we have a fiscal crisis in the state? Is the argument that the worse the crisis becomes, the more “creative” we have to get about bringing in new revenue?
Well, if that’s the case, where do we draw the line? Is it so crazy to think that, say, prostitution, if sponsored by the state, would become more socially acceptable as long as the government gets a nice hefty cut from those who run houses of prostitution? I’m not advocating prostitution; I’m just asking where the government draws the line. Cigarettes will kill you and the government doesn’t ban them, they just take a bigger and bigger cut from cigarette taxes. Does a particular act or behavior become less frowned upon as long as it brings big revenue into the state?
I say draw a line in the sand and do it fast when it comes to state sponsored gambling. I’m not a prude about this stuff by any means and, if it were legal, it would be highly likely that I would bet on the Super Bowl. But it’s not, so I won’t. (And if I did, would I admit it in print?) I just feel that our state leaders have to get a lot more sober and serious when it comes to identifying more productive, reasonable and sound ways of balancing our budget as opposed to doing it to a significant degree on the backs of those who could least afford it through more and more government sponsored “games of chance.”
What do you think? Take a gamble and write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It won’t cost you anything.