The Monitor's View

The odds and ends of Mega Millions jackpot lottery

The long odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot lottery is just a start into understanding why gambling is the wrong way to live up to one's abilities to get ahead in life.

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    Arnie Wexler, former head of New Jersey's Council on Compulsive Gambling, signs certificates for employees of Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City who completed training on compulsive gambling. The casino industry's efforts to address problem gambling range from the type of hands-on instruction Wexler gives to posting the phone number of a problem-gambling hotline on the casino floor.
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Some critics of Mega Millions lotteries make short of it by citing the long odds of winning. For Friday’s jackpot lottery of $640 million, which combined 42 state lotteries, the odds were set at 1 in 176 million.

Would it have been better if the odds were, say, merely 1 in 100?

Not a chance. Gambling is gambling. It is a sucker’s game, almost as bad as a Madoff Ponzi scheme. The house (or government) always wins. It preys mainly on the poor. And it feeds into an addiction for millions of people, breaking up families and often causing personal bankruptcy.

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Most of all, gambling (or “gaming,” as the industry prefers) perpetuates the notion of some ethereal “luck” in everyday life at the expense of what really drives human affairs, such as hard work, character, knowledge, and a grasp of the God-given principles that make people and society tick.

More than 1 in 5 Americans still believe the best way to achieve long-term financial security is to play the lottery, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Americans spend more on lotteries than on reading materials or attending movies.

Much of the media shows a bias by ignoring the negative aspects of lotteries and other forms of gambling. Journalists pretend they are being objective by simply citing the long odds, as if that’s the only other side of this popular passion for an undeserved pot of gold. For every news story about a mega-lottery winner, how about a million stories about the mega-issue of poor people spending their last dollar on a lottery ticket?

In Wisconsin, people who call a state help line for gambling addicts had an average gambling debt of $43,800 in 2010. The state estimates that 5 to 7 percent of its population are problem gamblers.

The long-term addicts of state lotteries, however, are state governments. They have forgotten that the early lotteries were designed to suppress the mob and its numbers racket. Now states promote the lottery with Vegas-style ads and cook up new games to raise even more revenue. In doing so, they create more gamblers – and more problem gamblers who then drain state spending.

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And now, to attract digital-focused young people and make gambling more “accessible,” many states are ready to bring lotteries to the Internet.

So far, the toughest resistance to such a move has come from stores that benefit from the foot traffic of people buying the daily lottery. But imagine the spurt in problem gamblers when anyone can just press an icon on a smart phone and spend $10 on a lottery number.

Big-dollar lotteries are mesmerizing to many people, luring them into forgetting that they have the ability to win in life, whether by talent, education, prayer, or sheer effort.

It’s no use laying odds on that. The truth always wins.

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