Lottery conspiracy theories?

I have always downplayed the existence of conspiracies of all sorts. But the emerging IRS scandal has led me to rethink my own views of the biases found in our governmental system, including its ability to reward and punish by discriminatively targeting individuals and groups. But forget partisan politics and small organizational tax breaks, my rethinking is about conspiracies involving really big money and brimming jackpots.

Consider the government-run state lotteries and quasi-private multi-state games of chance now found in almost every corner of the United States. Is there a conspiracy to reward some players at the expense of others? Yes, say some. For as long as state lotteries and the multistate games of Powerball and MegaMillions have been played, many in the black community have insisted that the games are rigged to their disadvantage since seldom are the very biggest prizes awarded in black neighborhoods. This belief has taken the form of an “urban legend” that exists in every state where lottery tickets are sold, including Arkansas.

The most ardent conspiracy advocates also argue that both draw games (Powerball, MegaMillions, one-state-only games such as Pick 3 and 4, Lotto, etc.) and scratch-off/instant tickets are equally affected by the conspiracy. They believe that the winning number selections for the draw games are not purely random; and that scratch-off games are rigged in terms of their geographical distribution. They assert that there is a conscious effort to rig the games so as to deprive black, low-income neighborhoods of the “grand” prizes in both sets of games despite the fact that black and other low income persons make up the majority of frequent gamblers in many locales. In some large urban areas, black lottery players routinely drive into mostly white areas to buy tickets, especially when the prize to be awarded is large, such as the $590 million Powerball prize recently sold in Florida.

As an avid, long-term lottery player, I have frequently discounted these kinds of assertions about biased lottery procedures. But in light of the recent findings regarding the Tea Party and the IRS, perhaps I should reconsider a bit. In the past I have argued against such views by insisting that one of the reasons lottery players who are black and/or of low income status do not win big prizes in the draw games is due to their preference for playing games with smaller top prize such as Pick 3 and Pick 4 and five-number state games, as opposed to the six-number “Lotto” or the multi-state games that award the biggest prizes. Ticket sales data in almost all states support this view.

But that same logic does not seem to apply to so-called scratch-off games. Those games are very popular in black and low income communities nationwide. Even though there is a tendency among low-income buyers to prefer tickets costing $5 or less, they also purchase large quantities of the costlier tickets as well. Indeed, here in Arkansas, scratch-offs make up the vast majority of tickets sold, and last year our state placed second behind Connecticut in terms of the per-capita rate at which we consume them.

Thus, I have found it rather interesting that given the very high rate of lottery playing in Jefferson County (second only to Pulaski County) since the lottery’s inception in 2009, relatively few of the really big scratch-off prizes (from $200,000 to $2 million) have been sold to date in our county.

Clearly, even if not rigged on the basis of race and income status, a distribution system is needed to allow for the geographic dispersion and tracking of those tickets. Indeed, some years ago a scandal surrounding the lack of secrecy regarding such distribution procedures developed in the state of Virginia. Some lottery workers there were charged with knowing and passing along confidential information regarding ticket tracking numbers and the locations within that state where top winning scratch-off tickets were likely to be found.

We already know that our county and city are also somewhat underfunded in terms of scholarships awarded to students. It may well be that we are missing out on the biggest lottery prizes as well. Perhaps Pine Bluff and Jefferson County should ask some questions about how the state lottery officials “distribute” batches of winning and losing lottery tickets. Umh! Maybe the Tea Party is onto something. Maybe the Arkansas gamblers’ IRS is housed in Little Rock.

Or, better still, maybe we Americans of all races and all political parties should rethink our propensities for conspiracy theory and governmental blame when things don’t go our way. With recently released data showing that 1 out of 3 American workers earns less than $24,000 per year, lottery playing, even if not rigged, will not solve our city’s or county’s economic woes. And not even a squeaky clean IRS will eliminate the political divide that continues to grip our nation and prevents our politicians from producing the well-paying jobs they promise each election cycle.

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Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.