Taking Advantage of the Poor

Lyrics have been written, stories have been crafted and movies have been filmed about the search for lost treasure. Invariably, the quest involves some down and out soul who seeks the treasure as a last resort. For people with little to show for a life of hard work (or in some cases a life of lethargy) the “big score” is seemingly the only way out – the opportunity to rise above their current station in life.

Look at me, Cassie. You know me. I ain’t ever going to come into big money and I ain’t ever gonna win the lottery, either. I’ve hit my ceiling. Finding Sir Scott’s Treasure means everything to me.”

Treasure State by C.J. Box

In most instances it’s a fool’s errand. (For those of you forced to endure a teachers union led education in the Portland Public Schools, a “fool’s errand” is an undertaking that has virtually no chance of success – such as Vice-president Kalamata Harris (D) uttering an intelligible response to an unscripted question.)

And the desperation borne of that wishful thinking is the reason for innumerable grifters, scam artists and snake oil salesman all seeking to prey on the combination of helplessness and greed. They range from the purveyors of “three card Monte” to “seeding” gold claims, to the new internet scams (the Nigerian, the Amazon gift card, etc.) and all the way up to the likes of Bernie Madoff and Sam Bankman-Fried. Unscrupulous men and women who promise the sky while they empty your bank accounts.

In times past, theses scams often succeeded because of the “charm” of the purveyor as much as the naivete of the victim. But with the advent of the internet and the ability to project the “opportunity” to literally millions of people simultaneously these low-lifers depend as much on the volume of “suckers” as they do the charm of the grifter. You may remember that early in the age of electronic commerce, imaginative scammers infiltrated the banks and added a penny to every transaction or deducted a penny from each account. That may seem like a negligible amount but multiply that by tens of million transactions or a tens of million accounts that amount begins to produce millions of dollars a day – and who would spend hours balancing a checkbook over a penny, or arguing with the credit card company over a penny.

The point here is that there are no limits to the ingenuity of those who would prey on the weaknesses of others. Particularly those who would prey on the poor, the uneducated or the downtrodden. And there is no limit on the moral depravity of those who would do so. You can often define the character of a person by what they would do for money. When morality doesn’t count and when the agony of those victimized doesn’t count, you have defined the character of those who would sink so low.

Normally, you would think that these are the very type of people and activities that would cause state and local governments to investigate and ban in an effort to protect their citizens. And they do. Most state and local law enforcement agencies have units that hunt, track and arrest these vermin. Headlines often capture the largest or most depraved of these scams and the men and women who operate them.

What you would not expect to find is that among these miscreants are the state and local governments of virtually every state in the union. What you would not expect is that the state and local governments are the most prolific purveyors of the “easy way out” – the rags to riches in an instant scams. The promise of tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars in exchange for a two dollar ticket. I am referring to the state lotteries. (Only Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah do not have government sponsored lotteries.)

But for state and local governments who are charged with preserving our well-being the callousness of implementing state lotteries is even worse. And that is because prior to the adoption of every state lottery, before the expansion of every offering and before the embrace of the cash they produce, each and every state legislature is fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

For instance, according to The Journalist’s Resource:

The research literature in this area, however, often highlights the more problematic aspects of this phenomenon. A 2011 paper in the Journal of Gambling Studies conducts a thorough review of the available research on lotteries and concludes that the “poor are still the leading patron of the lottery and even the people who were made to feel poor buy lotteries. The legalization of gambling has seen a significant increase of young people gambling, particularly in lotteries, and the best predictor of their lottery gambling is their parents’ lottery participation.” A 2016 study in the same journal reports that more people have gambling problems in states with more types of legal gambling or where gambling has been legal for longer. A 2012 study from Yale University finds that the “receipt of scratch lottery tickets as gifts during childhood or adolescence was associated with risky/problematic gambling and with gambling-related attitudes, behaviors, and views suggesting greater gambling acceptability.” Moreover, other studies, such as a 2010 paper in the Journal of Community Psychology, find that lottery outlets are often clustered in neighborhoods with large numbers of minorities, who are at greatest risk for developing gambling addictions.”

The very groups over whom the politicians wring their hands constantly, the very groups that the politicians hold up to justify government’s social welfare nets, the very people for whom the politicians thump their chests over their self-righteousness, are the very people who they victimize those most. The very people that the politicians exclude from taxation because they are poor are the very people from whom they extract lucre to feed the bureaucrats appetites for employees, for increased salaries, and for gold-plated benefits.

The Journalists Resource noted:

“Mega lottery jackpots, big winners and out-of-the-blue scratch ticket miracles are routinely featured across American media. Lottery revenues are often critical to government budgets and help subsidize a variety of programs. In 2014, lotteries contributed $21.3 billion to state budgets, up from $18.2 billion in 2012 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

For years the national average of those winning the lotteries finds that almost seventy percent of those winners go broke within five years, A January 2023 article published at MoneyMarshmellow.com noted:

“Further studies have found that winning the lottery generally didn’t help financially distressed people escape their troubles. Instead, it only postponed the inevitable bankruptcy.

“Accordingly to the book The Emotional Life of Money, lottery winners frequently become estranged from family and friends. They also have a greater incidence of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide than the average person. Like losing all the money wasn’t already enough!”

These winners, most of whom are unqualified by virtue of education and/or experience to manage large sums of money, immediately become targets for “friends and family” wishing to borrow money, for hucksters and grifters promising even greater worth, and unlimited and unwise spending to acquire all that they think they have been missing. It is the moral equivalent of giving a six-year old the keys to a Corvette.

But to make it even worse the excuses used to justify the adoption and/or expansion of a lottery system are the lies and exaggerations of the politicians and the public employee unions who benefit from expanded government. Invariably states, like Oregon, sell the idea of the lottery based on a promise to dedicate a substantial portion of the funding to particular government responsibilities embraced by most – improved education, parks and recreation, cleaner environments, etc. But money is fungible and once it is collected it cannot be traced. The lottery revenues are generally used to offset historic general fund expenditures resulting in little net increase to the those projects. In point of fact, because it frees up what was previously spent from the general fund, the politicians are free to hire more people, increase wages and benefits and reward favored constituencies with contracts, studies, and research which are in turn recycled to campaign contributions for the politicians deciding the awards.

So there it is. A system that preys on the poor, the uneducated, and the downtrodden by promising riches for the price of a two dollar ticket. As I said earlier you can tell the character of a person – even a politician’s – by what they will do for money.