The lottery is a form of public tax evasion, a way to avoid dealing with needed tax reform at the expense of the poor and those with addiction issues, said Oregonian faith leaders in a series of interviews with EthicsDaily.com.
A billboard promotes the Oregon lottery in Portland, Ore. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
"My bottom line on the issue of state-supported lotteries is that they are pure and simple tax evasion," said David Wheeler, pastor of the historic downtown First Baptist Church of Portland, Ore.
"We think about tax evasion as when some individual tries to exploit loopholes legally or illegally to avoid paying their fair share. But when the body politics, when the public, and not just rich folk...try to evade fairly and rationally underwriting the public well-being by shifting it onto the vulnerable people...we are evading taxes," said Wheeler.
Wheeler, whose church is aligned with the American Baptist Churches-USA, said that he found the lottery "morally reprehensible" for three reasons, beginning with its negative impact on the poor.
"The more your income, the less likely you are to participate. The less your income, the more likely you are to participate with a greater proportion of your income," observed Wheeler.
Second, Wheeler said the lottery caused people to believe that divine intervention would "float down from heaven" and change their circumstances.
Third, Wheeler said, "I think it is morally reprehensible that we shift funding of basic public services from a fair taxation correlated to what people can afford and we put it off on these most vulnerable people instead of paying our own fair share. It encourages our own greed."
Wheeler was not alone in his moral critique of the lottery.
"I think having the lottery as a way to evade tax reform is a fair statement," said Alcena Boozer, rector of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church in Portland.
"I can remember when the lottery was introduced. It was seen as a painless way to raise the revenue to support the programs that any state should have in place, to take care of the poor folks, to make sure that there is an education system, to make sure that there are health care programs," she said. "To have state-supported gambling is really...one of our less noble characteristics in this state."
Mark Knutson, pastor of Portland's dynamic Augustana Lutheran Church, noted the well-known fact that the lottery adversely affects the poor and those with gambling addictions more than others.
"You can't blame anybody making minimum wage in this country from buying a lottery ticket. You can't blame anyone on the economic edge because it is the only way that they can see getting out of that poverty," he said. "And so it's a dream that is kept out in front of people in order to sustain something that really has a major negative effect on the community."
Knutson said that "it is the ongoing task of an ethical society to create systems and structures for the common good and not to leave it to chance...Lotteries are a quick fix that don't sustain a society in healthy ways."
David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, noted that the "lottery has been a convenient way not to deal with substantive tax reform."
He said that "the lottery has de facto been a way not to get into the real business about tax reform and revenue reform."
Since the lottery had raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the past, Oregonians had seen little need to engage in tax reform, said Leslie, who observed that the current economic downturn meant lower lottery revenue and required new consideration for tax reform.
These Oregon faith leaders offer a compelling moral critique about the lottery, a form of state-sponsored gambling in more than 40 states, and moral clarity about taxation.
Unable or unwilling to create a fair and just tax system to provide for public services like education and health care, states have embraced the lottery as an alternative source of revenue. We, the citizens, have evaded making tough choices about taxation by embracing the lottery. We are engaged in a form of public tax evasion.
Most of us are content with a public scheme that transfers wealth from the poor – those most likely to play the lottery – to middle-class and rich Americans. The poor play and pay. We benefit from the public services. Yet again, the poor are exploited.
Regrettably, many of us are more concerned about paying lower taxes than protecting the poor from bad public policy.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.