Jayne: Many hands are losers, to the tune of $900 million

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

Published:

 

Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

What about the losers?

That is the pertinent question whenever a lottery winner is paraded before the media. Whenever somebody talks about their life-changing stroke of good fortune. Whenever balloons and a giant fake check are pulled out to celebrate a big win.

What about the losers?

You see, for everybody who cashes in big on Powerball or Mega Millions — the multistate lottery games that often result in jackpots worth hundreds of millions of dollars — there are many millions of people who donated to the cause.

Such was the case Thursday, when Mavis Wanczyk, a 53-year-old Massachusetts woman, came forward as the sole winner of a $758.7 million Powerball jackpot. Because she opted for a one-time payout instead of 30 payments spread over 29 years, Wanczyk will pocket about $480.5 million before taxes. After taxes, it will be about $336 million — still not a bad payday.

But that’s not all. Reports say there were 9.4 additional winning tickets worth a total of $135 million in Wednesday’s drawing, with payouts ranging from $4 to $2 million.

And that is where the losers come in. About 50 percent of Powerball revenue goes to paying out winning tickets, meaning there were roughly $900 million worth of losing tickets for Wednesday’s drawing. That’s $900 million in one week that Americans willingly handed over. That’s $900 million in one week from a society that is loath to pay for other’s health care or provide robust funding for education but will gladly chase something where the odds are 1 in 292 million.

Talk about longshots. CNN reports that the odds of being struck by lightning while drowning are merely 1 in 183 million. We’ll take that one with a grain of salt; it might be fake news.

Meanwhile, governments go to great lengths urging people to play the lottery. As Max Galka noted for HuffingtonPost.com last year: “From ‘don’t drink and drive’ and ‘stay in school’ to ‘buckle up for safety’ and ‘the truth about smoking,’ our government takes a protectionist and proactive approach to our welfare. But when it comes to the lottery, the government spends about $1 billion per year in advertising to encourage risky behavior!”

Washington takes part in both the Powerball and Mega Millions games, which between them have drawings four nights a week. It runs various games from scratch tickets to daily drawings. It generates $700 million a year in a state of 7 million people and pays about 62 percent of that out in winnings, boasting on its website, “When you play, the entire state benefits from it.” Of course, that’s only if you lose, which most lottery players manage to do.

From disease to policy

There is nothing new about this. Lotteries in the United States as a way to raise money for the government date back to colonial times, but their growth in recent decades has come to reflect a changing philosophy among Americans.

Once upon a time, the ethos was that if you are smart and work hard, you can strike it rich; now it’s a matter of picking the right numbers. Once upon a time, governments made a case that taxes were part of a cooperative effort to enhance a community’s quality of life; now they coerce people into thinking they can hit the big one. And the fact that states resort to using lottery dollars to fund education is a sad commentary on our priorities in this country. As Washington Post columnist George Will once said: “Gambling has swiftly transformed from social disease into social policy.”

Of course, nobody is forced to play the lottery. And if lottery losers are disproportionately the people who can least afford to gamble away that money, well, that’s just tough luck born of their own poor decisions.

But as state-run lotteries continue to chip away at our common sense and our sense of shared sacrifice, it’s time to change how we think of lotteries and ask the most important question: What about the losers?