In Our View: Winners and Losers

Damage from lotteries leaves stateswith an obligation to provide help



While state-run lotteries do more harm than good, at least Washington remains committed to somewhat mitigating the damage. Washington’s Lottery contributes a percentage of its revenue — roughly $300,000 annually in recent years — to a state program designed to combat gambling addiction. It also works with the Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling to provide a variety of services, according to Washington’s Lottery official Arlen Harris.

The Oregon Lottery, on the other hand, is trying to straddle the absurdly thin line between “responsible gambling” and “problem gambling.” The Oregon Lottery is pulling TV ads aimed at helping problem gamblers seek help; is withdrawing from the Oregon Council on Problem Gambling; and is preventing lottery officials from attending conferences on gambling addiction.

Those moves come in the wake of a convoluted ruling from the Oregon Department of Justice. The ruling, according to media reports, states that the Oregon Lottery can spend money on “responsible gambling” programs — an oxymoron if ever there was one — but not on helping problem gamblers.

All of which is a ridiculously complex maze that brings us back to an undeniable premise — states have no business being in the organized gambling racket. As columnist George Will noted in 1999: “Gambling has swiftly transformed from social disease into social policy. A generation ago, legalized gambling was rare and generally stigmatized.” Now it is a trough from which nearly every state government receives its sustenance.

We all are much poorer for it.

As The Columbian wrote editorially in 2002: “Once upon a time, governments developed funding through the strongest of human attributes — a willingness to help our fellow citizens, to donate a little of what we have in order to support the common good. Now governments prey upon the worst of human nature, enticing the weakest among us to hand over money that, in many cases, we can ill afford to do without.”

While nobody likes taxes, at least they propagate a sense of shared sacrifice rather than the notion that paying for services should be left to others.

For Fiscal Year 2012, Washington’s Lottery, which was created in 1982, had more than $535 million in sales and paid out about $314 million in “winnings.” That means there were more than $200 million in losses from players — although, unlike the big “winners,” the losers never get paraded in front of the media.

Much of that — about $122 million in 2012 — goes to the Washington Opportunity Pathways Account, established in 2010 by the Legislature to support educational opportunities ranging from early education to financial aid for college students. That is a worthy use of lottery funds, an investment in the state’s future, and yet the notion of a state lottery seems a roundabout manner for achieving that goal.

Along the way, state lotteries have served to undermine the work ethic in this nation. While the American Dream once required smarts and perseverance and dedication, now it requires nothing more than luck. We are taught that the road to success is paved with a lottery ticket — or a reality TV show, but that’s a thought for another time — and that striking it rich depends upon the drawing of some random numbers or the vagaries of a scratch-off ticket.

Most people are able to handle the allure of lotteries without risking their retirement fund or the money for baby’s new pair of shoes. But for those who aren’t, Washington is right to provide services to help with gambling addiction. Considering the damage created by state lotteries, it’s the least they can do.