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$1.4B jackpot: You can't lose unless you play

POSTED January 12, 2016 10:01 p.m.

It was a simple question: “A group of us are buying Powerball tickets. Do you want to get in for $6?’

I didn’t hesitate with my reply: “You can’t lose unless you play.”

“Whatever, Wyatt,” Doreen shot back without missing a beat.

It goes without saying I passed up a chance that by Thursday morning I could have afforded to pay cash for the Hope Diamond, have enough money left over to buy a presidential candidate or two, pay off my mortgage and have spending loot.

All over the country last week as the Powerball jackpot approached $800 million, people were lining up in droves to voluntarily pay taxes.

Now that the jackpot is at $1.4 billion expect longer lines than on Black Friday outside of a Best Buy selling high definition TVs with 6-foot screens for $1.01 to greet you at neighborhood convenience stores today.

I don’t have an issue with gambling per se.

Since the lottery was legalized in California in 1984 I’ve bought perhaps six lottery tickets, if that.

My less-than-enthusiastic embracing of lottery games has more to do with the politics behind it.

I happened to be on a school board when the measure authorizing a statewide lottery was on the ballot.

Five things soured me from the start.

— The firms that ultimately produced lottery scratchers and sold the state terminals were massive financial backers of the yes campaign.

— They deliberately placed most of the billboards pushing for approving the lottery in places like Del Paso Heights, Watts, South Stockton, Hunters Point, and any metro area neighborhood that was depressed economically. The message was clear: You could become rich for just a dollar.

— As election time neared, I kept hearing more and more people say they were voting for it only because it would finally solve school funding problems. (The fact the lottery accounts for less than 2 percent of all funding today for schools in California doesn’t stop many people from believing education should be flush when they see large jackpots posted each week.)

— If the California Lottery was proposed as a casino game in Reno or Las Vegas the Nevada Gaming Control Board wouldn’t allow it because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against the player.

— The government still wanted to — and continues to — put the squeeze on private sector gambling by regulating how many tables they can have to where they can locate. That isn’t a constraint for the California Lottery or any other state-run gambling for that matter.

I have been known to gamble. My favorite diversion — actually the only thing I do prefer to do — when I go to casinos is play 21. I haven’t gambled in a casino, though, since 2005.

I get that it’s a social thing. I get that it can be fun. And I get that the overwhelming majority of people I know who gamble do so responsibly.

Unlike casinos or card rooms, the lottery is so prevalent and easy to access that it lures in quite a few people who have no business buying lottery tickets and scratchers. I’m not talking about the working poor or low-income seniors living on Social Security. They earned the money and the right to make choices even if it ends up hurting them.

That isn’t the case of those accepting money from the state in the form of welfare to help feed and shelter their families. If they can spare a buck or two a week to gamble then they don’t need help buying milk for their kids.

It’s not a heartless sentiment. You accept welfare as a safety net to avoid the streets or starving. Gambling — or the pleasure one receives from it — is not a basic need.

About a decade ago there was a big blow up about how there were ATMs at Indian casinos, strip clubs and some card rooms that accepted state-issued debit cards given to welfare recipients to disperse cash.

Defenders of the practice argued that it was either the closest ATM to a recipient’s home or that it was nobody’s business what recipients did with the money they get from the state that was first taken from working taxpayers.  If you countered that argument saying there are ATMs everywhere or what if they bought meth for their kids instead with welfare cash, you would be dismissed as a cold-hearted control freak instead of getting any reasonable response. At the end of the day the money is being taken from those that work and pay taxes to help those who haven’t secured work and need to eat and stay sheltered.

As for the current Powerball frenzy, it is kind of fun listening to what people say they will do with the money even though their odds of being elected President of the United States in November are better than winning $1.4 billion.

And while I don’t need to trade $2 for a piece of paper to daydream, it is always nice to know 200 million or so others (assuming some people buy more than one ticket) like to daydream as well.

So am I going to play this time around?

I’ll see what mood I’m in when Doreen asks.

 

 

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