Poor dominate lottery spenders’ ranks

Published 3:31 pm Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Staff Writer

Beaufort County residents spent nearly $350 per person on lottery tickets last year, well above the state average, according to a report released early this month.
The report, authored by the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, analyzed per capita lottery data for all 100 of the state’s counties.
The left-leaning advocacy organization’s analysis suggested that, on average, less educated people in poor, rural counties spent more on lottery tickets than their counterparts in more well-to-do, densely-populated communities.
“Out of the 20 counties with poverty rates higher than 20 percent, 18 had lottery sales topping the state average of $200 per adult,” reads a news release from the Justice Center.
Beaufort County has a poverty rate of around 19 percent and a population of just over 36,000, according to the most recent figures available.
Total annual lottery sales in Beaufort County reached $12.6 million for fiscal year 2009-2010, the center reported.
By contrast, neighboring Washington County had a 21.8 percent poverty rate and sold the equivalent of $435.84 worth of lottery tickets for every adult in the county.
Hyde, Martin and Washington counties were among the 10 highest-ranking counties in per capita lottery sales, the Justice Center’s report reads.
“It’s certainly clear that economically disadvantaged folks are spending more on the lottery,” Jeff Shaw, a spokesman for the Justice Center, told the Daily News Tuesday.
The numbers don’t reveal why so many people in rural counties buy into the lottery, but for years the center’s staff has thought that when people are in economically desperate situations “they tend to try for the big win,” Shaw said.
“The lottery, even though it’s an economically disadvantageous proposition for them, it becomes their only hope,” he commented.
Alice Garland, acting executive director of the N.C. Education Lottery Commission, said the commission promotes responsible play.
“Every year we do a responsible play ad at our own expense and we pay for that air time,” Garland commented. “It is something that is ever present in almost everything we do. We encourage players to view the lottery as entertainment, and when the lottery ceases to be entertainment, they should stop playing.”
The commission fully funds a problem gambling hotline operated through the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Garland said.
The number for the hotline goes out on every piece of printed material distributed by the commission, she added.
“We believe that we have been proactive in terms of responsible playing from day one,” Garland said.
Since its inception with the first ticket sold on March 30, 2006, the lottery has returned more than $1.6 billion for education in this state, according to Garland.
She asserted the Justice Center’s research was incomplete because it didn’t take certain factors into account, including whether some lottery tickets purchased in a given county were bought by tourists, commuters or people just passing through.
“We don’t want anybody buying lottery tickets in lieu of paying their rent or buying groceries,” she said. “That’s not what we are about.”
Terry Williams, a member of the Beaufort County Board of Education, decried the lottery after revelations that just 29 percent of its revenues were being spent on education.
Lottery money is being used to help balance the state budget, Williams pointed out.
“But is that really what the education lottery was supposed to be about? I don’t think so,” he said.
According to a Sept. 24 news release from the Justice Center, a change in lottery-funds distribution ended up “pushing aside a formula etched in state law that calls for 35 cents of every dollar to benefit North Carolina schoolchildren.”
The change meant almost $80 million that would have gone to education-oriented goals, such as scholarships and school construction, went elsewhere, according to the release.
“I never supported the lottery from the beginning,” said Williams. “I personally don’t play the lottery and I have always thought that it does exploit poor people.”
The Rev. Dr. Jimmy Moore, pastor of First Baptist Church on Washington’s Main Street, agreed with Williams.
“Personally, I was never in favor of the lottery,” Moore said.
Moore said he had read other states’ statistics similar to those disseminated by the Justice Center.
“It’s people who really can’t afford to play the lottery, the poor are the ones who end up spending their money for lottery tickets, and that money could be used to meet the needs of their families,” he remarked. “In one sense, this doesn’t surprise me. I would hope the Legislature would take a look at that and maybe even do away with the lottery personally.”