I did not play Mega Millions

By Way of Disclosure: One of my children was awarded the Hope Scholarship which covered some of an education begun in a private college and concluded in a public university. Another of my children was awarded the Hope Scholarship for one semester of four. All other college tuition, books and fees were covered by a combination of other scholarships, our investment returns and our savings. This may become pertinent as you read point seven below.

It appears three people will split the $640M Mega Millions jackpot. Had there been a single winner who chose annual payments of the full amount he or she would have received something like $25M (before taxes) each year for 26 years. Each winner has the option of taking a lump-sum or the annual option.

If one of the winners dies of a heart attack from surprise, perhaps a reversion to two winners would take place. It’s really irrelevant.

I’ve never purchased a lottery ticket though raised in a home where Readers’ Digest and Publishers Clearinghouse entries were mailed as regular as, well, the mail. Month after month, year after year, and never a winner. Not even a van load of balloon holders to stop and say, “Thanks for your donation, LOSER!”
Mega millions lottery numbers
A few years ago when the lottery was introduced into my former home state of Georgia I refused to buy tickets. I now live in another lottery friendly state and have no plans to buy even a single $1 ticket as long as I live. Plenty of friends play at least sporadically and other friends and family play regularly. I’ve also stood in line behind more than one person on Friday afternoon spending their hard earned (I assume) salary on scratch-offs.

Then I have those friends who only play when the jackpot reaches the $200M and up stage. That’s right. They jump in when more people than ever play, more tickets are sold and the chances of winning the entire pot grow smaller with each passing nanosecond.

According to at least one report more than 1.2 billion tickets were sold for last night’s drawing. To put that in perspective, if a Bruce Almighty moment were to have happened and every person had the winning number, those $1.00 tickets would have been worth about 53 cents each.

Twenty-five annual payments of 2 cents a year, and 3 cents in the final year. Don’t spend it all in one place.

Minnesota pastor John Piper weighed in Friday morning calling Mega Millions a “suicidal craze.” Along with his reasons–all of which have my agreement–here are a few reasons I never play the lottery.

1. The odds shrink as the jackpot grows. As mentioned above, regardless of how large the jackpot grows, more people playing means more tickets sold means a drastically decreased chance of winning the entire thing. Some people act as if because they finally decided to purchase a ticket they have a better chance that the gambling addict who’s spending $100 a week. Wrong.

2. It seems to me to violate the scriptural warning about hastening to be rich. Proverbs 28:22 says, “A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth, And does not know that want will come upon him” (NASB). A desire to “get-rich-quick” may reveal more about us that we care to admit. Gambling of all types reveals in us a root of greed and discontentment.

3. It will not necessarily bring happiness. Jim Salter and Michael Tarm in their story, “Mega Millions winners are rich, but not THAT rich” at msnbc.com write that the three winners will clear around $100M after taxes, then note:

Surely that $100 million will at least solve all your cares and provide a lifetime of happiness.

Yeah, not so much.

“After they win the jackpot, most of them self-destruct and they end up much more unhappy than they were before,” Dr. Tom Manheim, who offers financial therapy in Solana Beach, Calif. “It’s really kind of a sad state of our economy where we think that money, once again, is going to bring us happiness and it doesn’t.”

“Money doesn’t bring happiness” is the most overused maxim in history. But, it remains as true today as the first time ever it was uttered.

4. It is a voluntary tax. I’m amazed at how many people who oppose tax increases, and complain about taxes already do not hesitate to pay the voluntary tax of buying lottery tickets. If you are really concerned that much about education or whatever government funding takes place in your state, send half of what you would spend on lottery tickets to that entity and keep the other half. You will have more.

I do not mind paying taxes due as a citizen, but I am not going looking for any new ones to add to the list.

5. I do not know how it might change me. Like everyone, I like to think that I would be generous with newfound riches, helping the poor, feeding the hungry, building wells in Africa, and the like. That simple fact is I do not know what I would do if suddenly wealthy. In another Proverb (30:8b, 9) the writer prays, “Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need. Otherwise, I might have too much and deny You, saying, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I might have nothing and steal, profaning the name of my God” (HCSB). Paul reminds us that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6, KJV). This where I hope to live.

6. It is a terrible investment strategy. The vast majority of millionaires and billionaires did not win the lottery. Some inherited, but most worked hard and saved well. In their wonderful book, The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko reveal that most U.S. millionaires drive used, paid-off automobiles, do not live “status” lifestyles, and live within their means. They also distinguished between the ‘Balance Sheet Affluent’ (those with actual wealth, or high net-worth) and the ‘Income Affluent’ (those with a high income, but little actual wealth, or low net-worth). People who’ve become millionaires after decades in plumbing or electrical contracting fall into the first category. High dollar signing-bonus athletes who are broke after five years fall into the second.

7. Lotteries exploits the poor. While national information in this regard seems hard to come by, the Newbern Sun Journal, a North Carolina based paper, editorialized in January 2011 about this very thing in the Tarheel State. Commenting on a study by NC Policy Watch they observe:

[T]he average Tar Heel spent about $200 on the lottery, and that’s taking into consideration that many don’t buy any tickets at all, while others may purchase a dollar ticket once in a while. A very large percentage of those who do buy lottery tickets spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on the lottery.

In seven counties in the state, all in the east, per capita sales of lottery tickets top $400. In all but one, the poverty rate is 21 percent or higher. The next six, even more in the east, have between $301 and $400 in per capita sales.

In Craven County, money spent on scratch-offs, Powerball and MegaMillion tickets is just shy of $280 – which ranks 19th among the 100 counties. Of the 18 counties that are higher, only one (Granville) has a lower percentage than Craven’s 14.9 percent of residents below poverty.

Jones County has sales per capita a dime below $267, with 18 percent below poverty, and Pamlico County has sales per capita of just over $241, with 16.3 percent below poverty.

Halifax County has arguably the worst combination, with sales per capita of $472 and 23.7 percent of residents living at or below the poverty level. Nash County, where the poverty rate is 15.5 percent, leads the state in per capita sales at $536.

According to NC Policy Watch data, out of the 24 poorest counties in the state, all but two have per capital sales that exceed the statewide average of $200.

So, if this money is turned over voluntarily, what is the state’s culpability in this get-rich-quick scheme? Simply put, the lottery system exploits the poor by promoting as tantalizingly possible what for nearly all players is an impossible dream.

A 2009 British study found the same issue in the Olde Country:

When calculated against income, spending is about the same in low earning and high earning categories or, in other words, low earners are spending proportionately much more of their income in draw based games that their higher earning counterparts. The figures are even more stark when it comes to scratch cards. Here, lower income groups play more frequently and spend more when they do play. Respondents earning under £20,000 played around 17 times per year, while those on £35,000, for instance, played around 12. Respondents earning £15-20,000 spent £74.70 per year on scratch cards, compared to the national average of £44.18.

A recent conversation with a friend underscores the concern that Christians should have over this last point. He had been asked to do some work for a lottery commission in a U.S. state. His concern, expressed to me, was that he would be taking part in exploiting the poor. Why should that not be a concern? Was not a major thrust of the minor prophets the failure of Israel and her priests to look out for the poor? (Trust me on this one. You can look it up.)

Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Jim Galloway recently reported that scholarships affiliated with the lottery in Georgia were being distributed disproportionately. He says:

Of the 8,721 high school graduates who were awarded a full-ride, Zell Miller Scholarship at state universities last fall, only 320 were African-American. That’s 3.6 percent. Georgia’s black population was measured at 30 percent, according to the 2010 census. Asian-Americans accounted for 897 Zell Miller Scholarships, or 10 percent.

Of the 74,278 high school graduates who received the lesser HOPE scholarship and attended a state university in the fall of 2011, only 12,724 were African-American – 17 percent.

A March 2011 AJC article by two Emory and Georgia State University professors revealed other problems with lottery funded scholarships being tied to raised minimum SAT scores:

Even more worrying, the proposed SAT minimum of 1200 would immediately disqualify large numbers of bright, motivated Georgia students from receiving a full scholarship. Only 2.7 percent of black students in Georgia score 1200, in contrast to 21.5 percent of white students. Only 5.4 percent of working-class Georgia students (whose parents make less than $40,000) make that score, in contrast to 30.8 percent of upper-class students (whose parents make more than $140,000).

Especially troubling is the effect that the changes to HOPE would have on students from rural Georgia. While 40 percent of students from Alpharetta High School would qualify for full scholarships based on the SAT requirement (about 166 students), just 1.8 percent of students from Meriwether County would qualify (about two students total last year).

The net effect is kids from upper income families, whose parents typically play the lottery less and who typically have access to better middle and high school educations, are getting more scholarships from the lottery, while kids from poorer families (often inner-city or rural), whose parents typically spend a greater percentage of income on the lottery, and whose schools are often underfunded, are getting fewer scholarships from the lottery.

In irony of ironies, it may well be that many of these lower-income parents are hoping to win the lottery so that they might pay for their kids to go to college.

Ask yourself this question: If, to play the lottery, one had to register with the lottery commission, and, if, to play the lottery, one had to certify an annual income of at least $40,000 for the household, how long do you think the lottery would stay in business? I do not think it could stay in business because too much money is coming from those who cannot afford to be spending it on lottery tickets. It would collapse under the unwillingness of the better-off to takes risks on smaller payouts.

The end result, for me, is that the lottery is a wealth increasing mechanism for the state, which then turns and give enough to winning individuals to keep people so interested as to voluntarily give of their money back to the state. It causes God’s people to divert money that might otherwise have been invested in God’s mission, preys on the hopes of the poor, gives advantages to many who already have a multitude of advantages, and plays a role is tempting Christians to keep their eyes on the things of this world.

I have enough things that need my attention. The lottery cannot be one of them.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Matt Svoboda

    My wife bought a $1 ticket once (not aware of anything stated above). We busted out some Ezekiel 7 in family worship that night.

    Suffice it to say, it has not happened again. That’s a fact.

    It is a good thing this did not happen while I was interning under Hershael York… I have no idea what the ramifications might have been!

    • Marty Duren

      Good to hear you got that rebellious woman under control for spending that dollar…

      • Marty Duren

        And before the witch hunt starts, Matt and I are friends and I was being uber-sarcastic.

  • Were you the one who said the lottery was a tax on people with bad math skills?

    • Marty Duren

      “The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.” I saw it on a bumper sticker, believe or not, years ago.

    • Oloryn

      I usually refer to the lottery as the VSSMST – Voluntary, Self-Selecting Mathematical Stupidity Tax.

  • Yvonne

    Ok. Simply out of curiosity only as related to point number 7. Hope Scholarships are requested by students who maintain said GPA, etc. While the lottery is “exploiting the poor” and deters some from playing for that reason amongst others, why would any of those people reqeust such funds to educate their children? Would that not also be an exploitatation of the same people as it is their paychecks who fill the cofers every week? Had never considered this under I read your article. Very good article, by the way.

    • Marty Duren

      Hi Yvonne-
      There is a slight difference I can see. Hope is distributed from money already collected. Since the money is already collected, distributing it does not in and of itself exploit the poor. That may be only a difference by degrees, though.

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