CHICAGO -- Big spenders might stop by Trump Palace for a night or two of decadence. Newlyweds may fly out to Vegas for a lucky honeymoon, but in Chicago the poor man's game is the lottery.
In Flossmoor, a wealthy suburb where the average income is $117,000 a year, a monthly average of $4.48 is spent on the lottery per household. In Posen, a poor suburb where average household income is $33,000, the monthly average is $91.82, according to a study published in the Chicago Daily Southtown newspaper using Illinois State Lottery data. Although people of all incomes play the lottery, it remains true that lottery players here, like the people who played the "numbers" (known locally as the "policy wheel") in the days before legal lotteries, tend to be poor.
But today's lottery serves a wholly different function than its illegal predecessor. On one hand, it scrapes up revenue for starved state coffers. On the other, it inoculates the urban poor with a stiff ideological dose of eternal possibility and personal mobility. The one thing it does not do is collect money for local investment, unlike the illegal numbers game of the distant past which at least kept the profits in the pockets of neighborhood criminal entrepreneurs. In an era when enterprise zones and tax cuts for businesses are all that is offered to heal the wounds of the cities, the lottery is part of America's perverse way of dealing with the plight of its urban poor.
Lotteries have a long and vigorous tradition in American life, going back to the colonial period when they were used to amass funds for the construction of many of the hallmarks of colonial architecture -- the Harvard and Yale campuses, for example, as well as Fanueil Hall in Boston. During the 19th century, private lotteries took in millions of dollars; the last of these, a fabulously corrupt money-making machine in Louisiana, was shut down in 1896. Yet even after the last of the legal lotteries disappeared, policy rackets continued to turn great profits.
The lottery returned as a tool of public finance in the late '60 and early '70s. Today, 39 states have lotteries. The Illinois operation is typical: after a few years of slow growth between 1975 and 1980 it exploded; ticket sales climbed from $98 million in 1980 to $1.5 billion in 1990. The Illinois lottery dollar breaks down like this: About 50 cents goes back to customers as winning payoffs; 40 cents goes to the Common School Fund; 5 cents goes to commissions for lottery vendors; and 5 cents goes to operating the lottery. The transfer to the school fund in 1994 was $552 million.
An enormous sum, to be sure, but it's an accounting fiction to say that the lottery saved half a billion dollars for the school fund -- if the money hadn't come from the lottery it would have to have come from somewhere else in the tax structure. A more accurate way to put it might be to say that the lottery saved local property owners half a billion dollars in taxes. Despite Chicago's vast ghettos, poor people here are easy to forget. Wealth is everywhere, as salient and unreachable as the spires of the Loop seem from the South Side -- a fairy city, hovering forever out of grasp. The lottery helps mediate this psychic gap.
"Get from Grand Boulevard to Easy Street," read a lottery advertisement put up in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods a few years ago. "This could be your ticket out." Lottery stories sometimes eat up 15 minutes of a half-hour news program; the ubiquitous pot of Illinois State Lottery gold at the end of a rainbow sits in the window of liquor stores all over the South Side. The message blares from the newspapers that print winning numbers, "hot" numbers and "overdue" numbers -- and from the hysterical screams of winners on TV. Anyone can be a millionaire. You gotta play to win. Everybody gets another chance.
A chance for what? Lottery marketing firms -- which make millions from state contracts -- devise surreal scenes of wealth. An ad on the New York City subway a couple of years ago showed a real room in an island mansion, the turquoise waves of some tropical sea visible through a window behind a velvet throne. A middle-aged man in tattered bathrobe with glasses and slippers sat reading the paper while a small poodle stood at attention before him, a peculiar mixture of suburbia and imperial Russia.
But at Chicago's Kimbark Liquors, a little Hyde Park establishment that sells 2,700 tickets the day before a $20 million drawing, the purchasers don't seem to be thinking about poodles. "It's just a dream, something to think about before you fall asleep, something to take your mind off everyday hassles," says Larry, a salesman at Kimbark.
What people think of when they play the lottery is not unlimited consumption, but instead the quieter comfort of financial security, a security that is no longer obtainable through work. A middle-aged man at Kimbark who plays $20 worth of tickets every day says that if he wins he'll go to Georgia, where it's warm. An older woman tells me she'd just like to pay off her bills. Mike Lang, of the Illinois Lottery, says, "Winners often buy a new car, not a Ferrari but a Buick or Cadillac." It's not being a millionaire that people long for, it's simply not being poor any more.
Statistically speaking, nobody ever wins the lottery. The chance of picking six random numbers out of 54 is one in 12,913,582. But sneering at the lottery as "a tax on the ignorant," claiming that people who play the lottery are poor fools, deluded and uneducated, manipulated into buying false promises of wealth, fame and glory, bypasses the possibility that maybe poor people actually have a good understanding of what their life chances are.
Maybe lottery players are right, not about the lottery per se but about their chances of personal mobility, about how far they can get in life by working industriously. The lottery makes sense to anyone for whom the answer is nowhere.
The lottery is hardly unique in siphoning money of a poor community -- compared with most businesses that "serve" the poor it looks almost innocuous. If the model for the lottery isn't Robin Hood, it's not quite Ronald Reagan either -- it robs the poor to give to the school system. For the players, it's no different than other tax or market systems that suck their money away. To refer to the lottery as a swindle or a cheat on the poor ignores the basic truth about being poor, which is that you get cheated all the time.
And there is always that lucky winner too. The lottery is a painless, if extremely narrow form of redistribution, taking money from poor people to enrich one of their own. Rather than simply manipulating ignorance, the lottery teaches a sly lesson: For people in desperate situations, fantasy is the answer. Reinforcing the message of personal mobility, lottery playing teaches that you're on your own, that organization and politics are losers' games. Unlike the liquor salesmen or absentee landlords, the lottery sells a vision of the future -- a future imagined in terms of an unchangeable class system. The poor donate money to make one of their number rich, at which point that person and his or her new-found wealth packs up and moves out. And the rich pay nothing for this self-perpetuating system of political quiescence -- in fact, they get a tax cut.
Illinois, for example, has one of the highest sales taxes in the nation (6.25 percent) and one of the lowest income taxes (a flat tax of 3 percent; of the seven states with flat tax rates, only Pennsylvania's is lower.) The lottery, which makes up 5 percent of total state revenue, grosses about 15 times the tax on real estate transfers ($28 million a year), about 5 times the tax on corporate franchises ($93 million a year) and is gaining apace on the corporate income tax ($851 million a year). In fact, total state revenue from all forms of gambling -- riverboats, the racetrack, bingo and the lottery -- now exceeds the corporate income tax, at $864 million a year. ("A tantalizing source of revenue," is how a brochure from the comptrollers' office describes gambling money.)
Considering the lottery and, additionally, the variety of other revenue sources that fall predominantly on the poor -- steep taxes on cigarettes, on liquor and sales taxes -- it seems evident that Illinois wants to increase taxes on working-class people, while easing up on corporations and their rich employees. What else can they do? Chicago can't move; capital can. Rather than enact new income taxes, Illinois politicians have decided to soak the poor.
While urban governments kow-tow to capital, local property owners have staged semi-revolts at any hint of increased property taxes, leaving cities and states with a vacuum where there should be revenue. Public goods and services are needed to attract businesses and investors, and cities compete to undercut each other, each offering a better deal, lower taxes, more freebies, more docile workers.
The only thing cities have plenty of these days is poor people. And the lottery is a way of exploiting that human resource, the one taxable group in a state that won't move out and whose numbers are growing. Kim Phillips is a journalist in Chicago. This article is excerpted from a longer article that first appeared in The Baffler Magazine.