EDITORIAL: Lottery is not the answer — jobs are

Jun. 19, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

Lee County's poverty rate is nearly 18 percent, which means that almost one in five households here have combined annual income falling below figures the federal government says put you in economic hardship — about $23,500 for a family of four or about $12,000 for an individual.

But there's one dollar figure where we're high, albeit in a very bad way: amount spent per capita on the North Carolina lottery.

The latest statistics show that the average adult in Lee County spends $345.42 per year on the lottery. That's more than $15 million combined in lottery ticket sales here.

Across the state, the average per capita is $238. Lee County's poverty rate (with 17.8 percent of all residents living at or below the poverty line) is just a smidgen better than the statewide rate of 18 percent. (The rates for children are slightly different — nearly 28 percent of children in Lee County live in households at or below the poverty rate, while across the state, it's just under 26 percent.) Yet we're spending some 45 percent more per capita on lottery tickets that the rest of the state.

A half century ago, President Lyndon Johnson created the “War on Poverty” crusade. Since then, the number of families in the United States living in poverty has dropped significantly, but for those families — including the thousands in Lee County and the rest of the state — who have ongoing financial hardships, that's of little comfort.

Many of them, the statistics show, gamble on the lottery to bring them out of poverty. Some of the most impoverished counties in North Carolina had per capita lottery sales that were twice as high as the state average, according to a recent N.C. Policy Watch report. Since most of those who gamble lose — no doubt many families ultimately lose quite big — the problems only worsen.

The lottery, of course, isn't the answer. Jobs are. And our legislators in Raleigh? They're trying to figure out ways to raise teacher pay (a good move) by tweaking the lottery (questionable), but another legislative term has started with very little to show in the jobs column (bad, bad).

You'll remember that the legislature, led by Democrats, approved the lottery in 2005. Most Republicans were derisive in their opposition. But in this new world, it's the Republicans in Raleigh who want to expand the lottery and use its proceeds to fund pay raises for teachers. Leaders in the N.C. House think they can grow lottery sales (which would fund the raises) by doubling the amount of advertising for the lottery, but lottery officials have warned that doing so would likely bring in only about half of the boost legislators are seeking. Those numbers just don't add up.

In the other chamber, state Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican, uttered the line of the year when he said, “My first thought, they need to call the gambling hotline. They seem to have a gambling problem.”

Do the poorest of North Carolinians in our most impoverished counties have a gambling problem, too? Statistics suggest that too many of those living at or below the poverty line are spending too much on the lottery. But in the poorest counties of the state, where there are few jobs, few opportunities, and few prospects to dig out of an economic hole many of us can't imagine, what other options are there?

Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led General Assembly are talking a good game with jobs, but the execution just isn't there. The lottery may be Raleigh’s answer to teacher pay, but it’s not the answer — for anyone — to the state's jobs crisis. For far too many of North Carolina's unemployed, underemployed, and impoverished, the odds are still stacked against them. When it comes to “scratching off,” the issue of “creating an environment conducive to job creation” needs to be at the top of the priority list.