THE government of the United States may be sliding into the lottery business. The US Army is quietly conducting a survey to see whether it should launch a lottery at US military bases overseas. Servicemen are being polled by a professional research company under contract to the Pentagon to determine reaction to the idea. The results are due in late September. After that, the Pentagon will report to Congress on the proposal.
While officially-run lotteries are now held in many states, this, so far as is known, would be the first federally-supported lottery.
Many of the servicemen being polled are teenagers who may not have had much experience with gambling. According to the Pentagon, there are 518,301 members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps stationed overseas. If the demographic makeup of these overseas forces is about the same as that of the armed services overall, 20 percent of them would be under 21, and another 35 percent of them would be between 21 and 25.
Is this what the US government should be thinking of at a time when questions are being increasingly raised about the addiction of Americans to gambling? The New York Times in May devoted a major four-part series to the exploding problem of gambling, and Time magazine dedicated a July cover story to the new gambling obsession.
The origin of the gambling-for-servicemen plan was the House Armed Services Committee. In a little-noticed resolution last year, the Committee requested the Department of Defense to ``conduct an independent assessment of the merits of conducting a lottery at overseas military bases where not in violation of local laws or Status of Forces Agreements.''
As justification, the Committee cited the fact that state-sponsored lotteries have ``proliferated widely throughout the United States.'' Today, said the Committee, some 29 states (soon to be 32) use lotteries as a source of revenue and ``often designate income from these lotteries to specific community welfare programs.''
Whether the Army should make gambling respectable because many states have is a debatable argument. The effectiveness of many of these state-run lotteries at generating funds for community welfare is increasingly under question. Another problem is that legal gambling spurs illegal gambling by spreading the idea, as Time says, that ``it's O.K. to gamble.''
But the House Armed Services Committee apparently felt a military lottery might help an increasingly pinched Pentagon budget. ``Appropriations to support military morale, welfare and recreation programs are decreasing,'' said the Committee, ``and many of these essential programs are in jeopardy.'' Apparently the proceeds from Congress-supported and Pentagon-sponsored gambling among servicemen overseas would be used in lieu of taxpayers' dollars to support such programs.
Thus the US Army's Community and Family Support Center in Alexandria, Va., has signed a $49,000 contract with Market Opinion Research, of Detroit, for a worldwide sampling of military opinion about the proposed lottery.
The Pentagon was extraordinarily coy in responding to my relatively simple query. It took two months and dozens of phone calls to winkle out the information. The office of the assistant secretary for public affairs said it knew naught about the project. The Army's public affairs department finally came up with the text of the House Armed Services Committee's resolution.
When I wanted to see the contract for the poll to assess the lottery, a lieutenant-colonel said that would be a Freedom of Information Act request. Finally, he conceded the contract was in the public domain. He would get it for me. He never did. Weeks later, I was told he had been transferred without following through. Eventually I got the contract proposal, and another couple of weeks went by before I found out to whom the contract had been let, and when.
Just a matter of bureaucratic procrastination? Or is the Army less than enthusiastic about publicizing a potentially embarrassing project?