The Lottery’s reverse Robin Hood ways

Raise your hand if the Boston Globe‘s story on Lottery spending inequity was news to you. Not a lot of arms in the air.

The Globe rolls out the numbers on an evergreen story: the state Lotteryworks as a Robin Hood in reverse, with residents of poorer communities disproportionately contributing to the local aid fund that Lottery losses fill, while wealthier communities reap much more in local aid than their residents gamble away. It’s a story that a number of media outlets, including CommonWealth, have done over the years.

The story comes just a few days after the paper had a piece on the eye-popping sales of the Lottery’s newest scratch ticket, a $30 game with the chance to win $15 million instantly. And on Sunday, the Globe Magazine had a piece by NECN and WGBH’s Jim Braude dissecting the lure of the Lottery for those least able to afford it.


In addition to that, scores of studies and reports have shown that communities with low income and high unemployment rates have the biggest number of gamblers, those who are banking on hope and dreams in the form of an instant hit. It’s also common sense that people living in Weston, where the median household income is nearly $177,000 and the poverty rate is 2.8 percent, spend about $45 annually per capita on Lottery tickets while Wareham, with its 11.4 percent poverty rate and median household income less than a third of Weston’s, spends an average of $1,270 per capita.

And therein lies the value in today’s Globe story. Accompanying the piece is an interactive table that details how high the net Lottery spending is in each community versus how much in state aid is returned. The chart also gives comparable numbers for similar communities.

Neither the numbers nor the story take into account the fact that places such as Boston, Worcester, and Taunton have higher Lottery spending per capita because more people who live outside those cities come there for work, shopping, or other activities. In addition, wealthy suburbs such as Carlisle and Boxford have no Lottery agents in town while Lottery hotbed Chelsea has 59 locations and New Bedford, with a 29.6 percent poverty rate, has 170 places to bet.

The numbers present an interesting debate, albeit old and ongoing, about whether lottery gambling preys on the most vulnerable, such as the elderly on fixed income or poor families. Those in favor of the Lottery say it is a voluntary action that feeds money into state coffers for needed services such as road repairs and police and fire without levying taxes on already-overburdened property owners (the Lottery accounts for more than $980 million each year in local aid).

But others would argue that paying for needed services is the responsibility of government and all its citizens. In Wareham, for instance, voters will decide on a $4.2 million override in two weeks that will help avoid layoffs from school and town departments, pay for the operation of the Council on Aging, and keep the town’s library open. The estimated cost to the average property tax bill is about $327 a year, one quarter of the town’s per capita Lottery spending. Voters in Hull, where the average per capita Lottery spending is a little more than $700 and the town receives less in state aid than they spend on legalized gambling, turned down a $2.29 million override last month that would have cost about $300 a year for schools and other town department operating needs.

As Barney Frank once said, “Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” The debate will rage over whether relying on government-sponsored lotteries means we actually are doing things together or relying on some to pull even more than their weight.



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