by Thomas Sugrue
Every time I see the trailer for the Bow Wow/Ice Cube flick, Lottery Ticket, opening on Friday, I want to throw a shoe at the screen. The movie looks bad, but that's not why I'm taking offense. No, I'm mad because it plays to a great American pathological co-dependency, namely the desperation of tens of millions of mostly working-class folks to escape their financial insecurity and the fact that our states do everything in their power to stoke an unrealistic sense of hope because they need the funds. It's one of the great perversities of public policy in modern America that one of the biggest sources of public revenue is the sale of millions of little pieces of paper with numbers and scratch-offs to the luckless. As with all forms of gambling, the lottery is a sucker's bet. Only a few will win.
Putting on my historian's hat for a moment, let me say this: lotteries are just one version of what has been an obsession for centuries. Games of chance have a long history from sailors playing scrimshaw dice to seniors pulling the slots in Atlantic City. The poor and working-class have always been drawn to games of chance. During the 1920s, numbers runners, like Harlem's famous Casper Holstein and Stephanie St. Clair, made fortunes catering to those who hoped against the odds to make it big. For a time, these numbers barons were America's most successful black businesspeople.
Looking at numbers games and the lottery, past and present, it's easy to get sanctimonious. After all, people make choices about how to spend their money and they should be more responsible. Just exercise a little self-control. A sucker might be born every minute, but it's your fault if you are still a sucker at age 20 or 40 or 60.
But those who gamble, in their own way, acknowledge one of the grim sociological realities of modern American life. Despite the fact that we talk a good game about "merit" and discipline and hard work, the rich are mostly rich because they were born that way and the poor mostly poor because they were born that way. There are a lot of smart, hardworking people who, because of the luck of their birth, will never be professors at Penn or corporate executives or Atlantic columnists or hold jobs that are at all commensurate with their abilities. Yes, there are folks who beat the odds (see Coates, T.) But so many well-connected, but relatively unqualified folks make it to high places (see, Bush, George W.,, Quayle, Ben, et al.) Over the years, I've taught a lot of kids who believe that they are "middle class" even though they grew up in Chappaqua or Radnor or Lake Forest in a family making a half million a year, who went to the best suburban, de facto private schools, took expensive SAT prep courses, got their first car and apartment and BlackBerry from mom and dad, and are now raking in big bonuses as investment bankers or corporate lawyers, and who believe that it's all because of their hard work and merit. We Americans are congenitally allergic to the "c word" but I'll use it anyway. Class. It matters.
People gamble, play the numbers, or buy lottery tickets for all sorts of reasons, some emotional, some chemical, some idiosyncratic. Some might actually just be doing it for fun. But at root, playing the Lotto grows out of the sorry recognition that there just aren't many other avenues for upward mobility, despite the ubiquity of "up-by-the-bootstraps" rhetoric. A whole school of social historians like Stephan Thernstrom (before he became a conservative pundit), Clyde Griffen, and my colleague Michael Katz, produced a genre of quantitative "social mobility" studies, now mostly unread, that showed that even in the midst of the extraordinary years of industrialization and massive aggregate economic growth in the 19th century, rags to riches was a myth. In the past and present, people born into wealth--with social and economic capital--are more likely to end up at the top; people born with little are likely to end up just where they started. Tough luck.
Still, the sanctimonious among you might say: well, isn't people's own fault if they choose to gamble away their meager earnings? After all, I'm a parsimonious guy. I hate to gamble. I save rather than spending profligately (well, at least most of the time). Why shouldn't every sensible person share my rationality? Well, maybe in an ideal world, where everyone has the education and information to realize that gambling is a losing proposition.
But the deck is stacked against rationality. When states spend billions advertising lotteries, when TV highlights the daily numbers drawings, and when the rags-to-riches stories of unlikely lottery winners make headlines, who is really at fault? It's public policy, not individual culpability.
There's something even more problematic with our lottery ticket mania and our governments' reliance on gambling revenue. State lotteries are the product of the collapse of the New Deal order. They are the perverse consequence of the anti-tax politics that have reigned since the 1970s (it's no coincidence that just as federal aid to states and municipalities began to tumble and just as tax rebels began to gain power, lotteries proliferated). The lottery is a high tax on the working-class, one that fills the gap left by our relentless slashing of taxes on the wealthy and on corporations.
I don't expect lotteries to go away anytime soon. They offer a quick fix, but with high costs (there are a lot of better ways to spend or invest money than buying lottery tickets). That's why we need to support alternatives. Let the Bush-era tax cuts expire. Capital gains: up the ante. It's time to stop capitulating to the top two percent of income earners. Make people who buy junk food pay a premium (that's probably the subject for another whole post). It's either that or watch as schools fire teachers, roads get more potholes, libraries and fire companies shut down, and our creaking infrastructure rots away. Until then, it's tough luck for all of us.