Suspend the Lottery?  Some Say It Would Help People During Coronavirus Crisis

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With many out of work and small businesses struggling, some believe it is time for Massachusetts to take another step to help its residents — by suspending lottery ticket sales. 

In the week ending on Saturday, March 21, a record 147,995 Bay Staters filed for unemployment benefits, according to the state’s labor agency. The numbers for the week ending on Saturday, March 28 have not been announced yet.

While no state has done it, some say that temporarily suspending Massachusetts lottery ticket sales would help residents who are lower on cash than usual.

Les Bernal, the national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, argues that in a time of crisis, the government should prioritize its citizens’ well-being over the revenue the lottery generates for the state government.

“Besides the obvious public health benefit, one of the most important economic stimulus actions the state can take is to stop pushing lottery tickets during this time of financial desperation for many,” said Bernal, whose Washington D.C.-based organization opposes government-sponsored gambling, in an email message to New Boston Post. “Compassion and fairness are more important than money.”

Supporters of the lottery note that it brings in a lot of money, much of which the state Legislature uses to provide local aid to cities and towns for public education.

In fiscal year 2019, the Massachusetts lottery generated $1.092 billion in net revenue, according to its web site.

That’s in normal times.

Massachusetts lottery sales have fallen dramatically since the coronavirus emergency began – more than 29 percent less during the last week of March than during the first week of the month, the state lottery’s executive director said Tuesday, March 31, according to State House News Service.

Even so, some say lottery sales during the current crisis should be zero.

Opponents of the lottery point out that the chances of winning are tiny, and that on average lottery players lose far more than they win.

Research from Investopedia found that the average Massachusetts adult spends $860.70 per year on lottery tickets and loses about $241, although the losses are not evenly spread out. Massachusetts residents spend more per adult on lottery tickets than any other state in the country, according to Investopedia.

In a time when many are struggling, lottery tickets are the last thing people should be buying, says Andrew Beckwith, the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

“We believe it is essentially a predatory tax, often on those least able to afford it,” Beckwith told New Boston Post in an email message. “With the federal government having just passed a bill to spend an unprecedented amount of money making sure people can pay rent and buy groceries in the Corona economy, the lottery is a luxury that no one can really afford right now.”

Opponents of state lotteries say they amount to a regressive tax on poor people.

According to a 2018 Bankrate study, 28 percent of Americans who earn less than $30,000 per year play the lottery weekly compared to 19 percent who earn more than $80,000. Last December, Bankrate found that players earning less than $30,000 a year spent 13 percent of their annual income on lottery tickets; for people earning more than $80,000, that figure was 1 percent.

South Carolina’s state lottery conducted a study in 2002 to see who plays the most. They found that households making less than $40,000 a year, despite accounting for only 28 percent of the state’s population, comprised 53.4 percent of South Carolina’s frequent lottery players.

Liam Sigaud, who works on economic policy and research for the pro-market American Consumer Institute, agrees the lottery is, in essence, a regressive (although voluntary) tax.

He also offered another argument against it:  suspending lottery ticket sales would give people one less reason to go out in public which could help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“In this crisis, particularly in these crucial weeks when flattening the COVID-19 infection curve is paramount, public leaders should be doing all they can to incentivize people to stay home,” Sigaud told New Boston Post in an email message. “Suspending lottery sales in Massachusetts is not only a common-sense public health measure, but doing so would help mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic by encouraging people to prioritize their spending on necessities.”

A spokesman for the Massachusetts State Lottery could not be reached for comment for this story.