Grand Theft Lotto

For all the moral agonizing over casinos and slots, let’s be clear about one thing: We’ve already got state-sponsored gambling in Massachusetts. It’s called the lottery. And we’re addicted to the tax subsidies we get from the millions of dollars poor people lose on it every year.

So here we are, spread out over a couple of tables at the front of the Li’l Peach convenience store in Roslindale Square. I’ve spent the last year and a half avoiding this place, but I just read in the paper that the economic vitality of our state is imperiled. Everybody’s got to do their part, it seems to me. I’m here doing mine.

There’s a group of us, actually. An old lady with a shopping bag and a missing tooth. A frail, worried guy in loose jeans and a swirling comb-over. A man burying his face in the upturned collar of a faded “T Operator” jacket. It’s 2:45 on a Wednesday afternoon and we’re watching animated Keno balls pop one after the other on a television monitor hanging from the ceiling. It’s businesslike—no conversation, no music. The only sound is the tsch-tsch-tsch of the machine printing lottery tickets, and the barking of scratch-ticket winners working out how best to reinvest their profits: Gimme two Number Sevens and a Number Six…wait!…I want a Nine.

It was this very scene, essentially, that sent me running home for a shower the last time I set foot in this store. Not because I have anything against a wager—trust me when I tell you I don’t—but because however you choose to interpret what’s going on in this little lottery den, until today it felt dirty. It felt like the kind of thing we needed less of in Massachusetts. As it turns out, though, I had it all wrong. We need more of it. And from what I’ve been reading in the papers, the fact that we don’t have enough of it is big trouble. “My communities are hurting,” state Senator Karen Spilka complained to the Globe in a recent story. The problem for Framingham and Natick and the rest of Spilka’s district—for the entire state, really—was not a downturn in the economy or any inability of our congressional delegation to bring home the pork. It was the distressing news that $71 million less was spent on lottery games in the first five months of this fiscal year than during the same period the year before. Last month’s gigantic Mega Millions drawing helped close the gap, but we’re still down. That could mean less money going to Spilka’s district, and everyone else’s, since about 21 percent of what the lottery takes in goes to the state’s municipalities. “This is critical funding,” Spilka told the Globe. “I don’t want there to be a deficit and then for us to have to tell our cities and towns the funding isn’t there.” And who would want that? Who wants to tell their constituents they’ll have to start picking up more of the cost of their own schools and roads and plowing and trash collection and police and fire protection?

Senator Spilka has no doubt increased her own lottery play to help prevent this calamity, but the burden shouldn’t be hers alone. Nor should the responsibility for subsidizing the tax rate of homeowners across the state fall solely on the frizzy-haired woman I used to see trudging through the snow in a filthy leopard-print coat and slippers to buy scratch tickets at the 7-Eleven in J.P. We’re all in this together, Massachusetts. Tsch-tsch-tsch. Tsch-tsch-tsch. Tsch-tsch-tsch.

Any discussion of the state lottery has to be understood in the context of the expansion of legalized gambling. First of all, and I can tell you this because I have no plans to run for political office, slot machines and/or casinos are coming. The drumbeat is deafening. A UMass Dartmouth poll in January found that 57 percent of us support casinos. We already spend at least $1 billion a year gambling in other states. The state Senate passed a bill in 2005 that would have authorized slot machines at race tracks. (It was defeated in the House.) The newly recognized Mashpee Wampanoag want to build a casino. And with Mitt Romney off stumping for president in his party’s extreme right wing (he supported slots, by the way, before he opposed them), we now have a governor who at least wants to hear more.

So it is going to happen. Personally, I really don’t care one way or the other—though it would be nice to have a poker room closer than Foxwoods—I’m just looking for an honest, hypocrisy-free conversation about the issue. I’m also looking for Whitey Bulger.

Those who continue to fight casinos and slots raise two broad objections. First, they worry that these forms of gambling will poach business from our super-successful lottery, which returns nearly $1 billion a year to our cities and towns. The state lottery hardly goes out of its way to dismiss this notion, even though a study it commissioned found the concern to be baseless. The report, by Christiansen Capital Advisors, predicted that, yes, lottery sales would decline in the first couple of years after slots were introduced, but they would fully recover within five years. (There’s reason to be skeptical of this expected rebound, but I’ll get to that later.) At the same time, the report estimated, slots would generate $1.1 billion in annual revenue. Sixty percent of the profits would go to the state under most plans.

The other protest you hear is from certain politicians and family-values types who believe that expanded gambling will unleash a plague of social ills on Massachusetts. “It comes with a cost, a social cost” is how House Speaker Sal DiMasi put it when explaining part of his opposition to the Senate slots bill. There is some truth to this thinking. Rachel Volberg, who just finished a term as president of the National Council on Problem Gambling and who lives in Northampton, says slots “do appear to have a much greater potential for people getting into severe difficulties.” Fine. So slots will mean new problem gamblers and a range of related troubles. But if we’re going down that path, what about beer and cigarettes? They’re just as addictive and inflict at least as much damage on society, but they’re legal and taxed to the hilt. And how come nobody’s crying in the newspaper that we’re not drinking and smoking enough? There’s more than one way to cover a budget shortfall.

And then there’s the Globe editorial page, which argued both sides in an April 2006 mind-bender that claimed slot machines would breed “costly social ills” and lead to the “erosion of the most successful lottery in the country.” What the hell do they think the lottery is breeding? Soon we’ll be hearing that the reason not to legalize drugs is because they’re not only destructive to the community, but also a threat to important alcohol tax revenues.

It’s 3 p.m. now, and I’m surrounded by 10 of my fellow do-gooders at the Li’l Peach. I’m sitting at a table, filling out a Keno card. There are 80 numbers to choose from, and you can select up to 12. The more you choose, the bigger the top prize, but the longer the odds you’ll hit it. I settle on playing seven numbers.

The lottery for me has always conjured up images of those $1 scratch tickets you and a buddy go halfsies on for a laugh, so it’s a surprise to discover you can wager as much as $40 on a single game of Keno. That’s a legit bet at the blackjack or roulette table in any casino. Listen, I want to help keep Senator Spilka’s constituents happy, but I’m not going broke to do it. Two bucks seems reasonable. If all seven of my numbers are among the 20 drawn, I’ll win $10,000. I hand the cashier my card. He punches a few buttons—tsch-tsch-tsch—and passes me back a little paper ticket. We exchange no words.

I take a seat and the drawing begins. The animated balls start popping on the TV monitor. The room watches in silence, not like at the track, where everybody’s screaming at the horses. None of my numbers comes up. The old lady with the missing tooth doesn’t hit, either. But there’s another drawing in four minutes, and four minutes after that. Keno goes 20 hours a day Monday through Saturday, 13 hours on Sunday. Each year, $742 million is spent on this game alone. (Total spending on the lottery is $4.6 billion.)

The old lady walks to the counter. She’s toting a clear plastic shopping bag containing a bag of Cheez-Its and some other stuff I can’t make out. She returns with a $2 Bingo scratch ticket. She breaks the silence by talking to a tall, elderly man who’s also got a Bingo ticket. He’s wearing a scally cap with one of those pins where the Irish and American flags embrace. They say the Bingo game is a lot of action for the money.

“I like these,” she begins, “because…”

“Kills some time,” he finishes.

“Yeah, right.” She keeps scratching. Finally she looks up at her friend. She’s a winner. “I got a big one,” she says. “Four corners.”

According to Rachel Volberg, 80 percent of us have purchased a lottery ticket in the past year. But the players who matter most to the lottery, who pay the freight, well, “that is going to be a fairly distinct demographic.”

Unlike some states, Volberg said, Massachusetts has never paid for a survey of exactly who plays its lottery, but she directed me to a stunning national study by four Duke University researchers that offers some clues. The 1999 report, “State Lotteries at the Turn of the Century: Report to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission,” found that just 5 percent of players in 1998 accounted for an incredible 54 percent of national lottery sales. And the top 20 percent of players that year were responsible for $82 out of every $100 spent. According to the report, “Males, blacks, high-school dropouts, and people in the lowest-income category are heavily over-represented among those who are in the top 20 percent of lottery players.” One-fifth of those players, in fact, were high school dropouts. Nearly 10 percent of the heaviest spenders had household incomes of less than $10,000.

The lottery, the revenue it creates for the state, the 415 full-time jobs it supports, the $35,000 average commission it generated last year for its 7,500 sales agents, the tax subsidies- it provides to homeowners like me—all of it is built upon the backs of poor people.

The other 80 percent of lottery players, the report says, are “of little interest from the revenue perspective.” That hasn’t kept the state lottery from going upscale with its recent promotional efforts, including deals with local NPR affiliate WBUR and the Deutsche Bank golf tournament, or from hiring a former Polaroid exec as its new marketing director. So what’s going on?

Here’s one thought: What if that report the Massachusetts Lottery paid for, the one by Christiansen Capital Advisors, is actually a stealth plea for slots? The report finds that the lottery’s existing games are maxed out. Adding to the woe, it will be “extremely difficult” to come up with new hit games. The consultants found only two options that “would significantly increase” sales and revenues. One was an animated horse race game. The other was, ahem, slot machines. So why wouldn’t the lottery just come right out and ask for slots? Avoiding the political fallout is one logical explanation. Another is keeping the lottery’s sales network of convenience stores, supermarkets, and bars from staging a revolt. Beth Bresnahan, spokeswoman for state Treasurer Tim Cahill, told me the agency has no official position on slots. But if they were approved? “We are capable and we are set up to handle it,” she said.

Slot players from Massachusetts, as it happens, tend to have some college education and earn an average of $45,000. A third make at least $75,000. It’s just a guess, but they’re probably more likely to listen to NPR than most scratch-ticket players.

I’ve been here at the Li’l Peach for about an hour now. I’m pretty sure I’ve done my part to get Massachusetts headed back in the right financial direction. I’ve played six games of Keno, spending $14 to pick a total of 51 numbers, and won nothing. On the way out the door, though, I decide to double-check, just in case I’ve missed something. I place each ticket in the little scanner that reads the bar codes. “Sorry,” the display reads again and again, “not a winner.”