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As a preacher’s kid, I grew up hearing my grandpa’s mantra about gambling. “If you win, you are a thief. If you lose, you are a fool.”
The Christian ethic in those days was that you earned what you received in monetary wages and did so by the sweat of your brow. “Winning” at gambling would mean you were taking someone else’s money that you did not earn and thus, you were a thief.
My, how times and Christian ethics have changed.
In the 1830s, evangelicals led the way in opposing state-sponsored gambling. From 1844 to 1859, 10 new state constitutions contained lottery bans. By 1890, lotteries were banned in every state except Delaware and Louisiana. Today, however, evangelicals including Southern Baptists are often leading the way in reinstituting state-run lotteries.
From the 1800s to our recent history, government-run gambling was not only recognized as immoral but was banned in every state. All this began to change in 1964 when the state of New Hampshire, a state without an income tax, instituted a state lottery.
Over the next 50-plus years, 43 states including three U.S. territories have instituted state-run gambling operations to pay for government programs, most often under the guise of funding public education.
Given my research on this issue, these lotteries are nothing less than predatory gambling that, in the end, exploits our poorest citizens.
Studies have proven that to make enough money to pay for the lottery and to bring in additional revenue, the state needs to rely on the poor to spend a disproportionate share of their income on lottery tickets.
Economist Mark Thornton wrote, “The lottery tax is regressive. It takes a higher percentage of a poor man’s wages than a rich man’s.” He further states, “Normally government would outlaw a business that offered such outrageously bad odds to its customers and it would tax away such obscene profits — but in this case, it advertises the lottery as a way that everyone can get rich. This is a good lesson about government for the many among us who feel that government is supposed to protect us from such deceit and plundering.”
All too often, what began as a well-intentioned way to provide funding for worthy projects, especially public education, becomes just another source of revenue for a voracious state treasury.
And now we have the additional Keno gambling program, a system that’s often diverted for new purposes through legislative and bureaucratic chicanery.
A study by the Opinion Research Corporation for the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association found that 38 percent of people making less than $25,000 a year believed the lottery was the answer to their accumulating wealth.
Tragically, many of our poorest citizens believe this exploitive advertising. They take the bait, believing this is the only solution to their financial problems. That any state government would establish predatory gambling is disturbing. Yet states make it worse by promoting the lottery as a way for those with limited resources to secure their financial future.
From this writer’s perspective, any politician who is not aware that a state-sponsored lottery is a regressive tax on the poor simply has not done his or her homework. For those who call themselves Christian, to support this form of plundering the poor only compounds this tragic system.
Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.