Powerball – A Horrific Tax On The Poor

In recent posts I argued that current tax policy for the wealthiest people in the United States incentivizes inheritance over effort, encourages getting ahead either from:

  1. Gifts from Daddy or
  2. Living off your wealth,or
  3. Owning a hedge fund,

…all the while punishing people who actually, you know, work for a salary to achieve the American Dream.

In response, many outraged readers commented that the poorest Americans pay no income taxes, and that the real injustice wasn’t Richie Rich starting out life with $10 million tax free, but rather that Welfare Queens and moochers were living high on the hog of their $28,000 in annual transfer payments, off the sweat of the brow of the upper classes.

Ah, but dear outraged reader, do not worry and do not be alarmed – the poor do not slide by tax free.  No, no, no.  If those poor people want good schools and good roads, our leaders have devised extraordinary measures to tax people who pay no income taxes.

Moreover, taxes on the poor have been rising steadily in the past two decades.  What is this hidden tax?

Lotteries!  Casinos!  The great thing about lotteries and casinos is that the government can capture significant revenue[1] from those Welfare Queens and moochers, without having to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for stuff like, you know, schools and roads.[2]

Indeed last night’s extraordinary Powerball drawing reminds us that governments constantly levy hefty taxes on poor people, especially poor people who are bad at math.[3]

Lotteries, which generate state revenue of approximately 30 cents for every dollar spent by purchasers, implicitly tax participants much more heavily than other revenue sources, between 25% and 56%.

As I wrote before, what I really find offensive about the abolition of the estate tax and the loopholes for the wealthy is the message that government leaders implicitly send about the value of work and government-incentivized methods of accumulating wealth.[4]  Likewise, what I really find offensive about lotteries and casinos is the clear message from government leaders to the poor about the way to get ahead in life, and the way to accumulate wealth.

The implicit message of taxation through lotteries and casinos is the following: Never mind trying to work for a living.  It’s best for you to try to reach the American Dream through pure dumb luck: the roll of the dice, the spin of the wheel, the turn of the card, or the scratching off of the ticket.  Money is best made not by discipline, sacrifice, intelligence, education, or work, but rather by playing a game, secretly knowing that the odds are rigged against you and that you’re going to lose anyway.

That’s our hugely regressive tax policy for the folks who don’t pay income tax.  That’s the message to poor people from our leaders rushing to promote lotteries and casinos.[5]

[2] How, besides common sense, do I know poor people pay these Lottery and Casino taxes in disproportionate numbers?  Great stats and facts accumulated here.  To highlight a few: 1. Instant tickets in Texas were more likely purchased by someone out of work than someone working or retired.  2. 49% of Californians without a college degree play the lottery, versus 30% with a college degree.  3. 54% of lottery players in South Carolina earn less than $40K a year, although they account for 28% of the state population.

[3] Of course, last night’s estimated $580 million Powerball lottery payout was exceptional – in that the expected value of $1 spent on a lottery ticket was actually positive – an unusual case.  The government still seeks to tax the poor with this lottery, but at least it wasn’t, for this brief instance, taxing both the poor and the innumerate.


[4] To be specific about that message:  “The best way to get wealthy is to be born in to the right family.  The best way to earn a living is to have your money make money for you.  The best business you can set up is a private equity or hedge fund, as we will give you generous tax breaks on your income if you do that.”

[5] Also of course the fact that I bought two Powerball tickets and did not win has fueled my anti-lottery feelings this morning.  Go ahead, call me a hypocrite.  I can take it.


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5 Replies to “Powerball – A Horrific Tax On The Poor”

  1. Unfortunately, we live in a country where most people seem to be focused on the Pleasure Principle, i.e., instant gratification.

    Btw, I beat you because I bought 3 tickets. Although, I could probably count the number of lottery tickets I’ve purchased in my life on two hands.

  2. All you got to do is look at who is in line at the store buying lottery tickets and you can see that it is a tax on the lower earners. That ans the alcohol or high fructose soft drinks they are buying with the rest of their dollars.

  3. doesn’t personal choice matter? No one is forced to play powerball or go to a casino. It’s not a tax if payment is optional.

    1. In one sense you’re absolutely right, of course its optional. Nobody HAS to play. In another sense, its govt revenue dedicated to basic public services (typically schools and state-funded education programs) that would ordinarily be paid for with taxes that everybody would otherwise have to pay. So it is another form of government revenue that replaces ordinary taxation, shifting it from everyone to only those people who choose to play the lottery. In my observation, and as shown in the studies cited in the post, the people who choose to play the lottery tend to be less educated, less wealthy, and less well paid than the people who do not choose to play the lottery. Its neat to say (as many commentators do) that its not a tax because its not mandatory. But its more realistic, in my opinion, to say its raising essential government revenue disproportionately from the poor.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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