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We Preach ‘Values,’ Then Sell Out to Blind Chance : Lottery: State-sponsored gambling hasn’t paid off on its promise. The harm it has done the poor alone justifies its repeal.

<i> Jack M. Tuell is the Los Angeles area bishop of the United Methodist Church. </i>

In all the retrospectives of the 1980s, hardly anyone remembered the one that revealed, perhaps more than any other, the moral and spiritual situation of Californians: the adoption of the state lottery.

For years, special interests had tried to get a lottery adopted, but the Legislature always resisted, as did four governors and, in the 1964 election, the voters.

In the early ‘80s, lottery equipment manufacturers (notably Scientific Games of Atlanta, a subsidiary of Bally) decided to try again. In a campaign in which state records show nearly 100% of the financing came from Scientific Games, the measure was placed on the ballot and in November, 1984, the people approved it by a 58%-42% margin.

Why did we do it?

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For some, it seemed like a harmless way to raise money at a time when we felt overtaxed: Let those who want to buy tickets buy them, and the rest of us won’t have to pay anything.

But the facts show that a large percentage of tickets are bought by a small percentage of the population, one composed of a disproportionate number of poorer people. So the lottery has become a regressive tax on a minority.

Others were persuaded by the promise that the lottery would “help education.” This was the most illusory promise of all made by lottery advocates, as state leaders of education warned us at the time. The cruel truth is that lottery income for schools has provided the excuse for cutting back on state funding that our schools need to do their job.

Most Californians apparently felt there was nothing morally wrong about the state sponsoring a lottery. In fact, such sponsorship places the state in glaring moral contradictions. For example: People overwhelmingly believe that our schools should be teaching values--honesty, hard work, sacrifice, commitment to excellence, and so on--and that out of such qualities should come rewards. Yet even as our state, through its schools, teaches such values, through its lottery the state teaches the opposite--that rewards have nothing to do with hard work, integrity and sacrifice, but are the result of sheer blind chance. Our actions betray our high-sounding rhetoric about teaching “values,” and our children are the first to understand this. Then we wonder why the moral deterioration of our communities continues.

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Not only is the adoption of the lottery a sign of confusion about important moral values; it also creates an atmosphere in which the “getting something for nothing” attitude flourishes. Thus we have banal TV ads for magazine subscriptions in which Ed McMahon dangles $20 million prizes in front of people. Why can’t magazines be sold on the basis of how good they are, instead of on an illusory promise of multimillion-dollar windfalls? And who underwrites the $20 million? Presumably all of us who buy any magazine that is a part of that faceless entity, Publishers Clearing House.

A few years ago Business Week coined a phrase that accurately describes our society today: “a casino economy.” We have pushed hard work, better products and more efficient service to the background, and have elevated money manipulation, insider deals and get-rich-quick schemes to unprecedented importance. We are all suffering from this.

The California lottery came into being as a result of a vast moral malaise afflicting the people. It is reaping a bitter harvest in the continuing moral deterioration of our communities marked by a loss of common values, strong schools and whole families. The struggle for the soul of America will be long and difficult, and will need to enlist persons of all religions, as well as all who value character, integrity and a higher quality of our life together. A good starting place would be the elimination of the lottery, a scabrous blight on the face of California.


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