Unless you are one of the three winners of the $656 million Mega Millions lottery, you lost your dream of being wealthy beyond imagination. You may be deeply disappointed that the lottery failed to deliver what you expected.
If you are an informed advocate of public education, you have long since lost your hopes for what the lottery was expected to deliver for public education.

State lotteries have been repeatedly sold to the public as benefitting public schools with extra dollars. And repeatedly, lottery windfalls have failed to benefit public education with extra dollars.

But before splashing the cold water of truth on the disappointed face of high expectations, know that Americans spent some $1.5 billion on lottery tickets in the recent Mega Millions prize. That’s roughly equal to $5 per U.S. citizen.

One of the “positive” outcomes from all the media-hype about last week’s lottery event is the number of news stories that explained how little the lottery benefits public education.

“[I]n state after state, where lotteries send millions of dollars to public education, schools are still starved. Why?” asked Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post. “Because instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things. Public school budgets, as a result, haven’t gotten a boost because of the lottery funding.”

Strauss reported that Texans embraced the lottery as a way to help public education. In 1996, the lottery covered two weeks of schooling. In 2010, it paid for three days.

The Virginia lottery was sold as extra funding for schools and is promoted as “Helping Virginia’s Public Schools.”

Yet as the state reduced its budget, the state cut its funding for education, meaning lottery dollars are supplanting state funds not supplementing them, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

In North Carolina, the lottery was sold as a supplement for public education.

“[L]ottery revenue has largely supplanted other state funding. And faced with billions of dollars in shortfalls, the General Assembly last year dipped into lottery funds to pay for other programs while also shrinking how much schools get for building classrooms,” reported the Fayetteville Observer.

In Ohio, Diana Whitt, treasurer for Cincinnati Public Schools, said that the Mega Millions was “a windfall for the winner, but not for the schools.”

The Ohio lottery took in $2.6 billion in 2011. That provided 4 percent of Ohio’s public education budget.

The lottery turns out to be a bad bet for public education. It hasn’t delivered the supplemental funds to public schools that were promised.

It’s also a bad bet for the poor, who depend on public education as a way out of poverty.

A few years ago, the Houston Chronicle asked, Who plays the lottery?

“Players making under $12,000 a year spent three times as much as those pulling in over $100,000 and nearly double those making between $75,000 and $100,000,” answered the newspaper.

“High school dropouts who reported playing at least one game within the past year spent nearly three times as much as those with graduate degrees and almost as much as those with some college,” said the Chronicle.

An opinion piece in the Charleston City Paper said that in South Carolina “the incidence of frequent lottery play was disproportionately higher among African Americans and players with household incomes between $10,000 and $50,000 (55-61 percent).”

Bloomberg Rankings gave Georgia its “biggest suckers” recognition for spending so much on lottery tickets and getting such a low return.

“You’re taking from those with few means and helping those with more means,” said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University economics professor. “To link that tax revenue to a benefit that goes largely to middle-and upper-class citizens is a little stunning.”

He told Bloomberg, “It’s a pro-rich wealth-redistribution technique in Georgia.”

How moral are we as a people when we favor a form of taxation – the lottery – that transfers revenue from the poor, those most likely to play the lottery, to programs that benefit the better off?

How moral are we when we accept a public promise that the lottery will supplement public education only to see that pledge disappear in state houses?

Lottery taxation is a moral matter too long ignored in churches.

RobertParham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friendhim on Facebook.

Editor’s note: At the annual ethics luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly, attendees will view a recut, 20-minute version of EthicsDaily.com’s award-winning documentary “SacredTexts, SocialDuty.” Attendees will hear from faith leaders about the connection between taxation and the common good, and engage in audience dialogue about the topic.

SacredTexts, SocialDuty” is a 2011 Bronze Telly Award Winner in the film/video category (non-broadcast) for religion/spirituality.

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