March 30 – Mega-Millions – the good news is that it is not a sin

The bad news is that it is likely foolish and possibly evil.

Well, I got that out of the way.  And by the way, I didn’t necessarily call any of you foolish or evil.  For those of you who opened this edition of the E-pistle on your smart phone while waiting in the Mega-Millions ticket line at your local convenience story, oh, go ahead and stay in line.  Just remember the biblical principle of tithing – ten percent to the Lord and his work.

You probably know the background. Mega-Millions is a multi-state lottery game (I think 42 of the 50 are in on it). There hasn’t been a winner in a long time and the jackpot has grown to $540 million.  Officials expect to sell 1.2 billion tickets at one dollar a piece.  The winner may take the payout in 26 annual payments of around $20 million, or in a lump sum payment of $360 million.

Your odds of winning are 1 in 176 million.  You’re much more likely to be struck by lightning (fifty times more likely), but there is very little psychological pleasure to be found in dreaming about what you’d do if you were struck by lightning.

The average American household spends $500 per year on lottery tickets. The experts say that if you saved that $500 per year and invested it cautiously, you’d have $25,000 at the end of 20 years. But by the same math, if you and a friend go to three or four Phillies’ games a year you could have $25,000 at the end of 20 years if you just stayed home and watched the game on your flat screen. Who are we to say that standing in a long line at the local 7-11 is any worse a pastime than sitting in an over-priced seat at Citizen’s Bank Park?

You might assume that the trouble with gambling is that it is sinful. After all, don’t we call Las Vegas “Sin City?” It’s one of those, “doesn’t it say somewhere in the Bible?” things. Actually the Bible never says gambling is sinful. It doesn’t say much about gambling at all. And what it says about lotteries is that they are sometimes a good way to determine the will of the Lord. That’s a story for another day.

The best gambling story in the Bible is found in Judges 14 and it concerns Samson who did many foolish things in his life. His bet with thirty gang members in his girlfriend’s neighborhood is one of the foolish things he does and lots of people are hurt because of it.

That’s my concern with gambling and the lottery, and particularly state-sponsored lotteries. Their potential to hurt is far greater than the potential harm done by buying a couple of tickets to a baseball game. Though disputed by state lottery officials, the evidence is strong that lower income people spend a disproportionate amount of their income on lottery tickets and that lower income zip codes host a higher number of lottery ticket vendors (the state officials say that doesn’t mean they are targeting low income persons – right they’re targeting those people from Bryn Mawr who drive to Kensington for a nice meal and a lottery ticket). Here’s an article that points to some of the evidence against the lottery

So the average household spends $500 per year on lottery tickets. $10 per week, let’s say. Probably well within many people’s okay to waste the money category. But what if the $10 is spent by a single mom who has children to feed or an unemployed dad whose rent is due? And what if the the $10 per week becomes $20 (someone has to pick up the slack for our  non-participating household), or $100 per week, fueled by state-sponsored advertising that doesn’t mention the one in 176 million odds?

I waste a lot of money, though not on lottery tickets. Wasting money is not necessarily evil, though it may be foolish. It sometimes gives us a little psychological thrill or, in the case of $3.00 a bottle water, satisfies a passing thirst.

The purpose of the lottery is for the state to raise money without raising taxes.  Even after the jackpot is paid and the advertising costs covered, the states are going to make a tidy sum on the $1.2 billion in Mega-Millions sales this week. And too much of that state profit will come, not from people in Bryn Mawr, but from people in Kensington.

The lottery has been called the “fool’s tax,” and maybe it is.  I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong with allowing those who are foolish enough to pay the tax to help support the state. It’s their money to waste. They say that all the Pennsylvania’s Lottery’s proceeds are meant to benefit the state’s older citizens, and, who knows, I may be old some day. But I think it’s evil to lure that single mom or tempt that unemployed dad in Kensington with promises of making it all better for just one dollar. The odds are 1 in 176 million.

Many of the purchases we make in this global economy are tainted with injustice. it’s almost  impossible to avoid. But participating in this particular injustice is really very easy to avoid. And that’s why I won’t be standing in line for my Mega-Millions ticket.