In defense of low-income lottery players

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At work I see the same tired folks line up at work to buy quick-picks and scratch-offs, legs dangling off the planters out front furiously or indifferently rubbing away at long odds for a better future. I’m sure quite a few people walk in and out of the store catching a glance of these dreamers and see them as slothful wastes of whatever. But they’re often veterans, frequently homeless, and not unlikely to be wearing plastic bands from the hospital three miles away. I think about them (not even mentioning the working-class buyers) when I read the prevailing wisdom that lower-income folks can’t understand the math involved, or are so perniciously stupid with their money they’d waste it on the lottery and not contribute to their 401k.

But ha ha, jk, most poor Americans won’t have a 401k retirement account (a decidedly awful investment vehicle anyway). What some of them do have is a not-exactly unfounded belief that winning the lottery is they only way for them to accrue any significant savings:

One in five Americans believe the lottery is the only way they can accumulate a significant amount of savings.

This might indicate that people are bad at math, but it’s also a sign of desperation.

During the Great Recession, more than half the states in the US saw growth in lottery sales. Of the 42 states with lotteries, 25 saw a spike in instant and daily games.

According to the author, Alvin Chang, lottery games are more often played in poorer neighborhoods and overrepresented among minorities—nationally, African-Americans are more likely to play. They also have basically no wealth to speak off. As he concludes, state lotteries are essentially funded by the vulnerable and those treading water with little-to-no chance of saving a consequential amount of money for retirement.

It’s not that other criticisms against the lottery aren’t true. Gambling addiction is a pernicious diseaseThese games really are regressive and overall a pretty terrible enterprise for the state to be running. Yet it’s often discussed within in the context of individual failures and not within a systemic critique of an economy that fuels such desperation. A Federal Reserve study from last year found that two-thirds of Americans earning less than $40,000 a year would have to borrow or sell something to cover a $500 dollar emergency. Earlier this month a survey found that nearly as many respondents (63 percent) couldn’t afford to cover $1,000 or less in unanticipated expensesThe bottom two quintiles have abysmal savings rates compared to higher-income families. Our intergenerational mobility sucks.

We get this, on some level. The poors aren’t oblivious to the odds of lottery games: they know them all too well. The greater issue, the more infuriating injustice, is that they don’t have many other options. Chances are if you’re someone who never plays because you don’t need it and believe that only suckers fall for such a dumb deal, then you probably already won the birth lottery that bumped you along a successful path. For the rest of us, for them, it’s often just a long-shot at making up for that lost opportunity.

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