OPINION: The state lottery will be a tax on the desperate

Posted on Apr 12 2019 - 5:00am by John Hydrisko

At the end of August 2018, Gov. Phil Bryant signed legislation authorizing a lottery in Mississippi. In recent months, a five-member board of directors has worked to establish a $400 million Mississippi Lottery Corporation. At the moment, Mississippi is still one of six states that does not sell lottery tickets, but that is expected to change by next spring and perhaps as early as this October.

Many politicians supporting the lottery call it a last-ditch effort to raise revenues for Mississippi’s failing infrastructure and foundering schools despite the state generally avoiding significant tax hikes on the state’s wealthiest citizens. The lottery, essentially, is a tax levied by anti-tax politicians. I don’t know if the lottery is economically wise, but I do think that the lottery is morally wrong.

Some say that lotteries are a way for states to get money from people foolish enough to throw it away on terrible odds. Lotteries are, I think, a way for states to sell hope to the hopeless. Different people play the lottery for different reasons, but the lottery is generally most popular among the most marginalized segments of society who view it as a slim chance to radically improve their lives.

On average, people with annual incomes over $100,000 spend $300 a year on lotteries, whereas people with annual incomes under $13,000 spend $600. On average, college-educated people spend $200 a year on lotteries, whereas non-college-educated people spend $700. On average, white people spend $210 a year on lotteries, whereas African-Americans spend $998. A lottery is a tax on segments of society that are already discouraged, disempowered and disenfranchised.

There are, of course, many marginalized people in Mississippi. The state is the poorest in the union, with a median household income of $34,473. One in four Mississippians lives below the federal poverty line of $12,490. Why, some are asking, shouldn’t poor people pay their share? But the fact of the matter is that poor Mississippians are not only taxed but overtaxed. Mississippi levies a 5% income tax against the highest bracket, but the highest bracket includes anyone making more than $10,000 a year.

On average, a person in Madison County makes three times as much as a person in Holmes County, but both individuals pay a 5% income tax. Mississippi charges a 7% sales tax — one of the higher sales taxes in the country — which disproportionately affects poor people who must spend almost all of their income to survive. To make matters worse, Mississippi is one of two states that charges the full sales tax rate on groceries. The average Mississippian pays 12% of his or her annual income for various state taxes, making Mississippi the 14th highest taxing state in the union.

Mississippians are already taxed, and poor Mississippians are already heavily taxed. In funding our infrastructure and schools, we should not enact a tax that disproportionately targets some of the poorest people in the country.

Supporters of the lottery remind us that the lottery is an optional tax. The state, they say, would not force anyone to play the lottery. I don’t buy this, and neither should you. The state of Mississippi, since its inception, has denied or failed to provide opportunity to poor people, undereducated people and people of color. To leave people with one option is to grant them no option at all.

Of course Mississippi needs the money, but the money should come from honestly taxing the rich and content instead of dishonestly gaming the poor. The state has no business peddling a sense of hope that the state itself has long withheld.

John Hydrisko is a sophomore English and Philosophy major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.