Editorial: The Terrible Price of Powerball Mania


In recent weeks, people across the nation have been scrambling to buy lottery tickets at a seemingly higher rate than usual after the Powerball jackpot had climbed to over a billion dollars (eventually peaking at an unprecedented 1.6 billion dollars). Even people who hadn’t been fans of the lottery previously were certain that it had become a reasonable “investment”. Despite the odds being 1 in 292.2 million, people were willing to waste $2 or more just to have a reason to fantasize about winning. But what most lotto players do not realize is that the lottery is a regressive tax, meaning that despite being voluntary, it disproportionately harms people with lower incomes, while leaving richer people unburdened.

Since the game appears be a level playing field, with everyone having an equally tiny chance of winning, many people that are in a hopeless economic situation consider winning the lottery the only chance they have to safely distance themselves from the poverty line. As Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post pointed out, “Some studies estimate that the poorest households- those bringing in less than $13,000 a year- spend an average of 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets.” Although that is a high estimate, with other studies suggesting lower percentages, it is still troubling-a reminder of the fact that some people are so poor that they the only hope they have is gained from donating a significant chunk of their small incomes to the state. And that’s essentially what the lottery is: a donation to the government that primarily comes from people who have the least, while those who have incomes as high as the jackpot have no need to win the lottery and thus contribute very little to the extra tax

Of course, it’s not only people at the bottom of the income pyramid that are paying the government for hope- plenty of middle class people are buying lottery tickets en masse. This makes sense for the same reason it does for the poor: many middle-class Americans are facing a lot of economic uncertainty and are also in search of hope. But here on Long Island, a part of the state with the highest taxes in the county, many of us are constantly complaining about being faced with an overwhelming tax burden. Yet people who are so vocally opposed to high taxes are willing to impose yet another tax upon themselves in the form of the lottery. And although the middle class contributes less to the lottery tax than the poor class does, it is still a shame to see people who may be earning enough to make ends meet but feel that they have to turn to the lottery to gain economic security.

The lottery does generate a fairly significant chunk of New York State’s education budget. According to nylottery.ny.gov, in the fiscal year 2014-2015, the lottery contributed $3.11 billion or “14 percent of total state education funding to local school districts.” It is unacceptable that such a vital public service should have a portion of it’s funding that large tied to a gambling enterprise that sucks cash out of the hands of the most desperate among us and funnels it to the state. The lottery does so much to harm poor communities while doing virtually nothing to help them. Those who have spent so much of their hard-earned income on these tickets only to lose as expected should at least recognize the true regressive nature of this tax before the next wave of “Powerball Mania” takes hold of the nation.