Did you win the Powerball jackpot?

If you live in Utah, that’s a stupid question. Utah is one of five states that don’t participate. 

If you live in one of the 45 states that do, it’s still a stupid question. 

Officials say one ticket sold in California won the jackpot that on Tuesday hit $2.04 billion, which the Wall Street Journal called the largest in the world. Still, I’m guessing it isn’t you.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. You just need to understand odds. In this case, your odds of picking five winning numbers between 1 and 69 and one additional number between 1 and 26, for the lone red ball in the drawing, is roughly 1 in 292 million. That’s according to the California Lottery’s website. 

I could go through all the comparisons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says your odds of getting hit by lightning are less than 1 in a million, blah, blah, blah. But if you’re inclined to buy tickets to play at $2 a pop, arguments probably won’t matter. You will argue back about having fun, engaging in a harmless pastime that allows you to dream big, etc. 

You probably also won’t consider what it means to have governments urging you to gamble your hard-earned money. But you should. 

Even if you consider gambling with your own money a personal right, you should be concerned about state governments, whose responsibility is to protect the public welfare, urging you to do it. You should recoil at the slick and expensive television ads many states produce in an effort to lure citizens into games of chance.

You should be moved by credible investigations that have found poor people and people of color as the primary targets of lotteries. You should be appalled to learn that a disproportionate amount of lottery proceeds earmarked for education go to colleges and wealthy school districts.  

A customer is handed Powerball tickets purchased at Lichine’s Liquor & Deli in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. Monday night’s drawing is estimated to be a record $1.9 billion. | Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

States, lured into lotteries for the easy money, have become so addicted to gambling that they are in “an impossible moral bind,” according to an editorial this week by the Bloomberg editorial board. “In no other situation would they so actively encourage citizens to engage in a costly and potentially addictive vice.”

Not only that, states don’t have to be honest with their advertising. You can look it up. Section 1307 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code specifically exempts state lotteries from laws requiring truth in advertising.

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Les Bernal, the national director of an advocacy group called Stop Predatory Gambling, puts all of this into two succinct and powerful words: Con and fraud. 

“Government used to run ads on television in the 1970s with John Wayne … and he’d say, ‘Invest in your country, buy U.S. savings bonds,’” Bernal told the Deseret News/KSL editorial boards during a recent visit.

“We’ve taken a nation of small earners, who could be small savers, and we’ve turned them into a nation of habitual bettors, as a government program.”

Bernal continued: “The reason why most states have had laws for most of American history against commercialized gambling is because it’s a form of consumer financial fraud. It’s a big con. It’s a financial exchange that is mathematically stacked against you.”

No one could seriously argue against the idea that the nation is awash in gambling, even if exact numbers are hard to pin down. Americans spent $71 billion on lotteries in 2017, the last year for which official U.S. census numbers on the subject are available. The Bloomberg editors put the number at $95 billion last year. 

A recent Bankrate.com survey found that people earning less than $30,000 spend 13% of their annual income on lottery tickets, while those earning more than $80,000 spend only 1%. It is, beyond dispute, a revenue generator aimed at the poor. 

That was demonstrated convincingly by a nationwide investigation conducted by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. Titled “Lottery on your block,” the investigation found that “stores that sell tickets are disproportionately clustered in lower-income communities in every state. In some states, these patterns also exist in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.”

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“What we’re talking about are gambling industry practices that are clearly designed to take advantage of vulnerable or adverse communities,” Timothy Fong, co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NPR earlier this month. “Why are you selling a potentially addictive product that we know doesn’t generate wealth and income for anybody?”

The Howard Center also found lotteries “disproportionately benefiting” colleges and school districts with students far wealthier than the people in the neighborhoods where lottery tickets are sold.

Sports betting explodes

But no discussion on gambling today would be complete without delving into the explosion of sports betting, something so prevalent in televised games of all sorts that it may at times seem as if games have no other sponsors. And those ads come into the homes of nongambling Utahns.

That wasn’t the case before 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, thus allowing states to legalize gambling on games.

“The expansion of sports betting is going to be faster than anything we’ve seen,” Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, predicted at the time, according to a USA Today piece.

We had no idea how true that would be. 

Freeman perpetuated the fiction that a large underground and illegal gambling network was at work before that ruling, making the legal gambling movement appear virtuous. As author Stephen Marche wrote for The Atlantic a year ago, the truth is that “sports-betting revenues grew 69% from 2019 to 2020 and another 270% during the first quarter of 2021.”

Matthew Walther, editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, put it this way in a separate piece for The Atlantic:

“Before the legalization of online gambling, the great majority of Americans would go their entire life without being tempted to seek out a bookie or fly to the handful of jurisdictions in which in-person sports betting was permitted. What millions now face are endless deceptive advertisements aired during the most-watched television broadcasts in America, inviting them to risk their money on platforms funded by venture capitalists rather than by organized crime.”

Today, anyone with a smartphone can place a bet anywhere — at home, on public transportation, while lying in bed during a sleepless night or while watching a favorite team play.

I mentioned earlier about the need to understand odds. The odds seem pretty good that this marriage between sports and gambling will end badly.

As Marche put it: “Gambling produces corruption the way salt water produces rust. You can fight it for a while, but it wins in the end.”

He added, “Another fixing scandal will rock American sports eventually; it’s only a matter of time.”

The human cost

Beyond destroying sports, gambling is destroying lives. Lotteries are, first and foremost, a regressive tax that costs poor people much more as a percentage of income than wealthier people. Poor people often feel desperate. A survey by New York Sportsday found that 8% of Americans have gambled in the hopes of getting out of debt.

Even the National Center for Responsible Gaming acknowledges that 6% to 9% of young people and young adults develop gambling problems, an alarming figure that is a much higher rate than for adults. 

The adult rate for addicted gambling has been put at between 1% and 2% of the population. Gregg Doyel, sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, calculates that it means between 3.3 million and 6.6 million American adults currently have a gambling problem, “a number that will rise as it gets easier and easier to place a bet.”

Each problem gambler translates into several family members and loved ones affected by the behavior. 

Bernal likes to tout Utah as the state where the American dream is the most alive, and he cites the state’s decision to keep all forms of gambling illegal as a main reason. A few years ago, Harvard found Utah to have among the highest rates of upward income mobility among children. Everyone who lives in the state should be grateful for that. It represents real economic hope, not the false promises of games of chance. 

Does Utah keep the American Dream alive?
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By contrast, Bernal equates the act of commercial gambling with “pulling out a $100 bill, throwing it into the street, and then paying somebody minimum wage to pick it up.” 

“It’s just a sterile transfer of wealth where success only comes at someone else’s expense.”

Sure, someone has likely won the Powerball jackpot. The winner, or winners, may be interviewed by media, if they don’t choose to remain anonymous. But no one ever interviews the millions upon millions who entered and lost, week after week, and who will be lured into playing again and again in a futile hope for quick financial success.

Odds are, their state governments are playing them for suckers.

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