Today millions of Americans are making a stop by their local grocery store or gas station in hopes of obtaining what is now a $640 million Mega Millions jackpot. The odds of winning are 1 to 175,711,526, but those long odds are not dissuading a large portion of the public. At this time, it may be wise to have a larger conversation about how we, as a country, think about wealth. Let me be clear that I am not condemning the lottery itself, or the consumer who today decides to go and spend $2 on their lottery dreams. Rather, I propose that the problem is what I shall refer to as the “lottery mindset” of America. Most of America has accecpted a lower standard of living than what they deserve in exchange for a one-in-a-million chance that they can be one of the lucky few that strikes it rich.
Many people purchasing tickets today have a realistic grasp of their chances of winning. The average middle-class American who buys $5 worth of tickets is not relying on their projected lottery winnings to pay for the bills next month. However, there are many Americans who are buying $100 or more worth of tickets today in hopes that it will pay for their retirement. There are thousands of Americans who buy $20 or more worth of tickets each week, no matter what the size of the jackpot. Even more bothersome, a large portion of the public has become fascinated with the idea of being super-rich, at the sacrifice of pursuing more realistic goals of being content.
In America it has been common to say that everyone can achieve the American dream. We all are told that we can achieve the riches of Donald Trump, or even of Bill Gates, if we just have a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. In order to keep this American dream open to everyone we do everything possible to make it easy to get rich. America has lower tax rates on the wealthiest class than almost every other developed country. In other countries, the rich are typically taxed at very high rates. These tax revenues are then used to fund social programs like universal health care, or education for the population as a whole. Even in America, the top tax rates for the richest citizens were at 70% or above until 1980 when Reagan began the steep decline in top tax rates, which now sit at 36%.
These lower tax rates are justified, in part, on the argument that all of us could make it rich if we wanted to. In America we have allowed for the continuation of poverty, or the lack of funding for education and universal health care, based partly on the argument that everone could win their own lottery. The truth, however, is that not everyone can be super rich no matter how much we work.
First, there simply is not enough wealth for all of us to be Bill Gates. This concept was illustrated perhaps most clearly in the movie Bruce Almighty. When Bruce, acting as God on a temporary basis, answered “yes” to everyone’s prayers he made thousands of people lottery winners for a day. The problem was that all these winners split up the jackpot so much that the winnings were not worth that much anymore. In the same manner, there simply is not enough wealth for everyone to be super-rich in our society.
Secondly, the rich are only able to attain their riches because everyone is less wealthy. Bill Gates would not be a billionaire if he shared all of his profits equally with every worker in his company. If Gates paid all of his employees millions in salary he also would not be able to attain his great wealth.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, there are real obstacles for many who wish to obtain the American dream. Let us go back to Bill gates for an example. Gates grew up in a middle class suburb with a lawyer for a dad and mother who was able to care for his needs at home. While Gates did not go to college, he did undoubtedly benefit from a high quality education which included enrollment at an exclusive preparatory school from age 13 to 18. Gates parents purchased a computer for him in 1968, when a computer ownership was extraordinarily rare for most Americans. Can we really say that a child born to single-mother, living in the inner-city, below the poverty level, has the same chance at the American dream as Gates? This is not to condemn Gates, as his inventions undoubtedly helped better the economy. It is to say that Gates’ lottery ticket had a much better chance at getting the jackpot than most Americans.
So how does all this relate to the lottery? In America we have maintained a system which enables a very few individuals to amass huge amount of wealth. Over the last 30 years the top 1% of Americans have seen their income grow by 281%. Meanwhile, the poorest Americans have seen their income rise by about 25%, not even enough to keep with inflation. While the minimum wage has been largely ignored, and social welfare programs underfunded, the tax rates on the richest Americans have gone down over 300%. That is the lottery mindset of America. Sadly, the consequences are more real, and very, very, very few people have a winning ticket.