EDITORIAL: Lottery sales ban amid COVID-19 would go too far

People have a right to spend stimulus money any way they wish
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

It’s perfectly legitimate for government to impose rules and restrictions on citizens and businesses to discourage the spread of coronavirus as a means of protecting the collective public health.

In fact, one could say, it’s the government’s obligation to do so. But it’s not the government’s obligation to protect individuals from their own poor decisions.

So while we understand and respect the intent behind efforts of anti-gambling organizations to get states to temporarily suspend lottery sales, such an action — even during an emergency like the coronavirus outbreak — would represent too much of a government intervention into individual rights.

Groups like Stop Predatory Gambling say they fear that some people will use their government stimulus checks to buy scratch-off lottery tickets and other games of chance instead of using the money to pay bills or buy food for their families.

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Poor people are particularly vulnerable to the lure of quick money, they reason, and therefore are more likely to blow money they need on lottery tickets. Even if that’s true, we don’t make a practice of dictating how people spend their own money, even poor people. 

Not all lottery purchases are acts of desperation, by the way. Some people with disposable income play just for the fun of it. And with so little fun to be had these days,  buying a lottery ticket is a harmless outlet for many.

Regardless, if people want to spend their checks on lottery tickets or alcohol or cigarettes or chocolate or any other legal product, does the government have the right to tell them they can’t?

The stimulus checks don’t come with any conditions attached.

If the federal government had wanted the stimulus money to be directed a certain way, it had the means to do that.

Instead of issuing checks, it could have issued debit cards, similar to EBT cards (food stamps), to ensure that the money could only be spent on necessities like food and housing. 

Or it could have sent them out as coupons for food and other necessities like toilet paper. Or it could have done what the president suggested and direct the stimulus as a tax credit instead of cash. 

Maybe it should have chosen one of those options, but it didn’t. It chose to send cash.

Another factor in the decision to continue to sell lottery tickets, besides the whole “individual rights” thing, is that lotteries are a form of income for states struggling with tanking economies and dwindling tax revenues. As a result, state and local governments and school districts will be forced to either cut programs and staff or raise taxes.

Here in New York, lottery revenues in 2019 approached $10.3 billion, with net proceeds earned for Lottery Aid to Education nearly $3.5 billion.

Asking states to give up that needed revenue during this fiscal crisis, and at the same time impose uniquely oppressive personal mandates on how its citizens spend their own money, is the wrong step to take.

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