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Lottery Tickets, Welfare Recipients, and "Taliban Stam"

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North Carolina legislator Paul "Skip" Stam stirred quite a bit of controversy last month with his proposal to ban welfare recipients in the state from buying lottery tickets. He has since backed away from explicitly targeting citizens on welfare, yet it is worth taking a moment to reflect on lotteries, welfare and Mr. Stam himself. Stam is a troubling figure to say the least. The Republican Stam is currently the Speaker Pro-Tempore in the North Carolina House of Representative, and he is deeply involved in anti-gay politics, the promotion of school vouchers, restrictions on a woman's right to choose, redistricting of the worst kind, and general all around budgetary violence. His harshest critics often refer to him as "Taliban Stam."

But Paul Stam's broader effort to curb lottery practices could point the way towards public policy of some merit. His initial statement
on the matter was, "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 necessities." This is in many ways a reasonable and concise description of the function of lotteries in the United States. They are a regressive tax, meant to target the "undeserving" among the poor, functioning as what a Maryland legislator once called "welfare in reverse." Stam's willingness to drop the explicit targeting of welfare recipients from his proposal can be taken as evidence that his real target is indeed the lottery. He has called the lottery "a scam," and "just fraudulent," and he plans to push a set of legislative changes to restrict the manner in which the North Carolina Lottery can advertise.

The era of contemporary lotteries began in New Hampshire in 1963 and quickly spread to the rest of the Northeast. Yet federal law barred these early lotteries from advertising on television, on the radio, and through the mails. In 1974 the directors of the nation's thirteen state lotteries went to Washington and pleaded that they should be allowed to operate in the manner of private business enterprise, and that they should be allowed to advertise in order to compete with illegal gambling. Congress lifted the restrictions on advertising, and thus contributed to the explosive growth of lotteries. After lotteries proved themselves as moneymakers in the Northeast, the trend began to spread across the nation, eventually penetrating the socially conservative South. At this point lottery advertising is among the most common forms of communication between state and citizen in this country. Lottery ads promote all sorts of problematic messages, most notably a veneration of the concentration of obscene amounts of wealth.

The politics of resistance to lottery growth have always been deeply complicated. Some anti-gambling efforts have been altogether shambolic, such as that of "Christian" hustler Ralph Reed. Genuine lottery critics have typically emerged speaking on behalf of either the inner city poor or rural social conservatives. Given that these groups have a limited history of political collaboration, it has been difficult to form coalitions to push back against lottery expansion. The task is further complicated by the fact that the multinational corporations that contract with lotteries, to provide technological infrastructure, to manufacture terminals, and to produce scratch games, have emerged as an intimidating and aggressive lobby with a documented history of bribery and kickback schemes.

Any legislation that shames and stigmatizes people on public assistance is inherently suspect. Yet there are a variety of ways that legislation can mitigate efforts by lotteries to push their products among the poor. Restrictions on an over concentration of sales terminals in any given area would be a good place to start. But if Paul Stam is sincere in his efforts to restrain the North Carolina Lottery, then his proposals should be met with an open mind. He has a proven history on the issue, and his past opposition to lottery growth has gone beyond moralizing, and has been rooted in sound economic arguments. Collaboration by liberals and leftists in such efforts is not a matter of compromising with the enemy, rather it is a matter of recognizing those rare moments in the day when a broken clock is revealing the actual time.