Still catching up on the holiday week, I refer to a Boston Globe op-ed written by Derrick Jackson on July 7, in which he refers to "the abject addiction of the state to the lottery." He notes:
The average American spent $177 playing the lottery, more than the average spent on reading materials. Massachusetts is fifth in the nation in per-capital lottery spending at $700.
I had seen this number in previous years, but each time I do, I am blown away. That is $700 for every man, woman, and child in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. According to the US Census, the average family size in Massachusetts is 3.14 people, so let's call that $2100 per family. (Since we don't buy tickets, some other family is covering our share in addition to their own.)
Back in 1990 or so, when I was running the local water and sewer system and needed to raise water and sewer rates to $800 per household to pay for sewage treatment plants to clean Boston Harbor and to replace decades-old water and sewer pipes, I was told that this was not affordable.
This past winter, when I chaired a citizens' commission suggesting that our home town pass an override to increase property taxes by a couple hundred dollars per year to repair and replace aging schools, fire stations, streets, and parks, some said that this was not affordable.
Most recently, I have seen some observers suggest that the now mandatory health insurance in Massachusetts of about $1200 per year is not affordable, and lots of studies have been done on this matter.
So what does affordability really mean? I know I am lucky enough not to have to personally worry about this. But lots of people do. Governors, legislators, and other policymakers have to stand in their shoes and make specific decisions about rates, taxes, and premiums, decisions that can indeed result in people making choices among food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.
But Mr. Jackson's column should prick all of our consciences. The lottery is a form of taxation that tends to be regressive, hitting the poor and working poor the most. It can encourage a type of gambling addiction because it offers hope, especially to the poorest. But the hope is illusory because no lottery survives if it pays out more than it takes in. As a friend once said to me as we walked through a fancy casino in Las Vegas, "This place was not built with our winnings."
We have decided that it is acceptable to impose this form of taxation to keep the cost of other public services "affordable." By any standard of affordability, this is a deceptive definition and, in Mr. Jackson's words, "a social crime." Bravo to him for the reminder.