North Carolina lawmakers, led by Republican state Rep. Paul Stam, have proposed new legislation to ban welfare recipients and people who have filed for bankruptcy from purchasing state lottery tickets.
"We're giving them welfare to help them live, and yet by selling them a ticket, we're taking away their money that is there to provide them the barest of necessities," Stam said, adding that the lottery is "essentially a scam."
Is this really about protecting the poor, or is it about condescension towards the poor?
Almost half of Americans live in a household that receives some form of direct benefit from the federal government. Three quarters of entitlement payments go towards the elderly or disabled. And while the bottom 20% of income earners do consume 32% of entitlement benefits, the middle 60% consumes just around that, 58%.
That means we are looking at a society that is heavily dependent on some benefits to function. Stam's legislation would not reverse this trend; it would merely introduce discriminatory legislation against those who happen to be part of it.
Put another way: it seems that very few people want to be on government benefits just to get by. I think people would rather have access to good jobs, their own housing, and the ability to purchase their own food, as it is very difficult to get by in North Carolina on just benefits.
Additionally, such a regulation seems impossible to enforce and dubiously legal: how can the government impose a blanket restriction of lottery for a class of people defined solely by their income level and qualification for benefits? Both from a practical and legal standpoint, the proposal seems unlikely to pass the smell test in general implementation.
As a former "welfare mother" wrote in the New York Times in September, "judge-and-punish the poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean."
I'll add a rider to that: just because we give the poor a pittance of financial assistance does not mean that the state has a right to police their wallets.
Stam may or may not be right to criticize the government of North Carolina for running a lottery program which presumably draws a disproportionate amount of its intake from the state's poor. Unfortunately, unless he turns that into an effort to do away with the lottery entirely – unlikely, as it helps pull in half a billion dollars to the state budget – then the measure seems solely discriminatory in intent.
In 1997, Stam criticized the lotto program as a "regressive tax on the foolish." He might be correct, but who is he to lecture other people how to spend their money? Stam has no problem with me buying a lottery ticket. Apparently, Stam supports the right to do whatever you want with your wallet, unless you're poor.
Compulsive gambling is created by and amplifies poverty, not the other way around. Even doing away with the lottery entirely would do little to reduce poverty. If Stam were genuine about helping get Americans off welfare, he would focus his efforts on creating jobs, fostering innovation, and building incentives for economic growth in North Carolina, not punishing the poor for buying a lotto ticket.