Saunders: Can't ban the poor from the lottery

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 27, 2013 

You got any dreams? We want them, too.

That’s what comedian Richard Pryor swears his wife’s attorney asked him when they showed up in divorce court.

That’s also what State Rep. Paul Stam is saying to welfare recipients in North Carolina by proposing a measure that would prevent them from playing the lottery. In an Associated Press story last week, Stam said, “We’re giving them welfare to help them live, and yet by selling them a ticket, we’re taking away their money that is there to provide them the barest of necessities.”

Barest of necessities? Could his contempt be any clearer? Considering their public positions and utterances over the years, it’s hard to tell which some Republicans despise more – people on the public dole or the state education lottery.

Stam wants the lottery to list the actual odds of winning its games and to drop the word “education” from its name. Those proposed changes are intended to dissuade lottery players from deluding themselves into thinking A, that they’re helping out the schools by playing, and B, that they’re going to win.

$300 million or nothing

Of the working people I know who play the lottery — usually only after the jackpot hits something like $300 million, because they somehow figure anything less would be a waste of time – most realize that their odds of winning are roughly about the same as the Republican-stacked legislature erecting a statue to Mike Easley, the Democratic former governor who foisted the lottery upon them.

Even if you agree that no one on public assistance should be able to play state-sponsored games of chance, how do you stop it? When someone comes in to put $2 on their nephew’s girlfriend’s mama’s birthday because they had a dream about a nearsighted mongoose, how are you going to tell if they’re on welfare or not? Are we going to require store clerks to ask for welfare-identifying marks?

“Let me see your knees? Yep, you eat welfare cheese. No lottery for you.”

“I can tell by your neck you get a welfare check. Get outta here.”

Van Denton, spokesman for the N.C. Education Lottery, told me lottery officials “haven’t studied (Stam’s proposal) well enough to understand how to do what he wants to do.”

All walks of life

Denton said he meets with the lottery’s “big winners” and they come from all economic groups – one is a retired banker. “Playing the lottery should be for fun,” he said. “We don’t want people spending their rent money, their gas money, the money they need for food on the lottery. The money people spend ... should be extra money that they have to have fun with.”

Is Stam saying, via the bill he plans to introduce this week, that people on public assistance shouldn’t have extra money – even $2 – with which to have fun?

The state could always garnish the winnings and reimburse itself for whatever it has paid. That would be a good idea – as would making the winner have a barbecue wingding and invite everybody in the state.

None of us relishes seeing poor people lose their money to play games of chance, but proposing a law – especially one that would likely be ruled unconstitutional – is not the answer.

It would be far better to educate poor people and everyone else – as Stam reasonably suggests – about the unlikelihood of winning. Besides, if you prohibit people on welfare from winning, they’ll just have their nephew’s girlfriend’s mama go collect that check.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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