The Florida Lottery recently introduced five new scratch-off games, a move that likely will boost the lottery's bottom line at the expense of its most vulnerable ticket buyers. Scratch-offs, which range from $1 to $25 a ticket, are most heavily played by the poor. No one is forcing them to fork over their money, of course. But as the lottery tailors its offerings to maximize scratch-off sales and markets games in low-income neighborhoods, Floridians would be right to question whose interest that really serves.
The names of the games are straightforward and promote a potential windfall: Maximum Money, Bonus Crossword, Double Deuces, Lucky Seven and Fast $100. All cost between $1 and $5, with a top prize of $250,000 for the $5 game. The new options mean the lottery now offers 83 scratch-off games, which account for 65 percent of ticket sales. Why do the poor play them more? For the instant gratification, experts say. People in poverty see the lottery as a chance to improve their lives. It rarely works out that way, but ticket sales soar nonetheless.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel recently analyzed lottery sales figures, marketing data and geographical information to discover who buys scratch-offs and what it costs them. The findings are disturbing. From 2010 to 2015, sales of scratch-offs rose three times faster in poor neighborhoods than in other areas, and it happened as the lottery directed more advertising to poor and minority areas, the Sun Sentinel found. Those parallel increases point to a win for the lottery's marketing department but no one else.
Gambling critics refer to lotteries as a tax on the poor. But unlike taxes, lottery purchases aren't compulsory. However, like taxes, they affect populations differently. The Sun Sentinel found that people in high-poverty areas spent an average of $385 in 2015 on scratch-off tickets. In better-off areas, the average was $245. Those figures validate the argument that lotteries are regressive and even harmful.
Where that harm might be mitigated — in increased money for education — inequality persists. Florida's Bright Futures scholarships, funded with lottery money, are awarded to students who score in the top tier on the SAT or ACT. The high standards mean mostly middle- and upper-class students earn the scholarships, not poor and minority kids. That gap grew wider last year when the state raised the bar even more on Bright Futures in order to rein in costs.
These are salad days for the Florida Lottery, which is enjoying its highest sales ever — $532 million in July alone. Profits were up 17 percent compared with July 2015. But too much of the windfall is coming out of the pockets of low-income Floridians who are being lured to spend money they can't afford to lose on a long-shot bet.