Powerball and the Moral Deficit

Bad Odds for the Poor

There are some taxes that folks just love. And in the last two weeks, people have been scrambling to pay one of them. I'm talking about Powerball.

Listen Now | Download

John Stonestreet

America is in the midst of Powerball fever. And it’s not hard to see why. The potential value of a winning ticket went from $40 million in November, to $800 million last Saturday night, to an estimated $1.3 billion as I record.

In interviews everywhere, people are fantasizing about what they would do with all that money. Many are admitting to buying tickets in bulk. Though in one refreshing change of pace, a woman at a supermarket told a colleague that she wasn’t playing because, “No one needs that kind of money.”

Well, she’s definitely in the minority. People are lining up to buy, despite the fact that the chances of winning are astronomical: one in 292 million. In miles, that’s more than three times the distance between the Earth and the Sun, what astronomers call an astronomical unit or AU.

Now, if all that was happening was a bunch of people throwing away a couple of bucks on astronomically-long odds, it wouldn’t warrant comment. But that’s not the only thing going on here. As ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser recently said on his radio show, it’s clear that “the lure of easy money affects the segment of the population you wish it [that] it didn’t affect.”

He’s referring to the disproportionate impact of state-sponsored lotteries on those who can least afford to play them: the lower-middle class and the working poor.

daily_commentary_01_13_16This disproportionate impact was the subject of a recent piece by Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute. He cited polling data that confirmed lottery critics’ worst fears: “The poorest among us," he said, "are contributing much more to lottery revenues than those with higher incomes.”

How much is “much more?” One poll found that “people who played the lottery with an income of less than $20,000 annually spent an average of $46 per month on lottery tickets. That comes out to more than $550 per year, and it is nearly double the amount spent in any other income bracket.”

And it isn’t only the people at the very bottom of the income brackets: “Those with annual incomes ranging from $30,000 to $50,000 had the second-highest average — $24 per month, or $288 per year.” While that’s half as much as those earning less than $20,000 a year, it's still a lot more than people in higher income brackets.

Ballor calls these state-run lotteries, which include Powerball, a “betrayal” of the citizenry. For starters, they're highly-regressive taxes on those least able to afford them. And it’s certainly the only tax that’s promoted through slick and nearly always misleading television and radio ads. And, Ballor adds, though lotteries are usually promoted as a way to pay for education and other human needs, “revenue is often diverted for new purposes through legislative and bureaucratic chicanery.”

That’s because it’s easier to impose what's virtually a tax without the name on the poor than it is to ask citizens to accept higher taxes for what they want. And this gap between what people demand and what they’re willing to pay for it was what Philip Johnson once dubbed the “moral deficit.”

In other words, people say they want smaller government, but often what they mean is that they’re willing to sacrifice someone else's programs and subsidies, just not their own.

The explosion of state-government lotteries, and more recently, state-sanctioned casino gambling and slot machines is, in significant part, a product of this moral deficit. Let someone else pick up the tab.

Every once in a while, the payout grows so great that the rest of us will catch the fever our elected officials are spreading in our name, especially to our most vulnerable neighbors. The rest of the time, however, we’re just content to let them pay the bills that we’re not willing to pay ourselves.

As I said, when it comes to the lottery, the odds of winning are astronomical. But the chance of acting shamefully toward our neighbors is a sure thing.

Further Reading and Information
Powerball and the Moral Deficit: Bad Odds for the Poor

The statistics on gambling present a clear reality check. Those who can least afford to throw away money are the ones who try to beat the odds. But when they lose, we all lose. For more information on the consequences of the "moral deficit," check out the links below.


Why Everybody Loses With the Powerball
Jordan Ballor | Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission | January 8, 2016

Statisticians question logic of buying multiple lottery tickets as jackpot rises to $1.4 B
Jeff Barker | Baltimore Sun | January 11, 2016

Consumerism and the Lottery: What They Can’t Get You
John Stonestreet | BreakPoint.org | December 7, 2012

Gambling Insanity: Political Chicanery and Cowardice
Chuck Colson | BreakPoint.org | January 31, 2012

Available at the online bookstore

The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity
Skye Jethani | Zondervan | March 2013


Essentially every word of this article wouldn't feel out of place in a speech by Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders. Make of that statement what you will.

-The Bechtloff
Taxes on the poor
One of the unfortunate things I have learned ministering to poor people, is that most are poor because the spend money on things that they shouldn't. One of these things is lottery tickets. I do understand, however why they buy them, because they see it as an easy way out of poverty. The hard way out is to learn to spend your money wisely. I have had numerous fruitless discussions with people about what they should be spending money on, but more often than not, they don't listen to me. These people are also often more likely to vote for politicians who will increase their standard of living through government programs. This is a problem also, because most people who make $20,000 pay no direct taxes, and have no knowledge on how those programs cause taxes go up. An example of this is school tax, where people who live in apartments are more likely to approve a tax increase than people who own houses, because they do not see a direct increase in their tax bill. They may see their rent go up, but I suspect few relate the school tax increase to their rent increase, because they don't occur at the same time. I think that if they actually got a school tax bill, they would be less likely to vote for the increases. I agree with this article that lottery tickets are a tax bill that is disproportionately placed on the poor, but I doubt if most people buying tickets would even realize this. This is why I think everyone should pay taxes, and everyone should understand that choices politicians make have a direct impact on the taxes they pay. This would eliminate the class war, because the poor would be in the same boat as wealthier people. I think wealthier people don't mind paying extra taxes for the safety net, but object more to people living in the net permanently instead of climbing out after they fall in. The wealthier people also want opportunities for people who are willing to climb out of the safety net, but some politicians focus so much on the safety net, that they forgo opportunities, and giving people the ability to climb out. My experience with ministering to the poor also has shown me that they really want those opportunities. They want to work, and they want to be successful, and many will make it out of poverty in time, but if there are no opportunities, they will be forced to stay poor. Jesus said we should not forget the poor, and I think that means we should help them climb out of the holes they dig for themselves, but we are competing with the government who seems to be buying their votes with "free stuff", but not really helping them out. This is why I think everyone should be paying taxes so that all would know what that "free stuff" actually costs, and may not be helping them long term.
No one has to buy even one single ticket. To the extent the lottery can truly be called a tax it is a tax on greed and stupidity. If this tax bill is large for someone it's only because they deserve it. Many people, indeed the vast majority of people who play it do so responsibly, and just as with alcohol, the fact that a small minority cannot enjoy it responsibly does not mean it should be taken away from the vast majority of those who can.

-The Bechtloff