National Catholic Register


Critics Cite Downside Of Powerball Fever

'Get rich quick'obsession can exact high cost on society

BY John Burger

August 09-15, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/9/98 at 1:00 PM


NEW YORK—Thirteen people in Ohio awoke as multi-millionaires July 30. Millions of others woke up to find out that it was all just what they had suspected — a dream.

The frenzy surrounding the largest lottery jackpot in history left many people reconsidering the ethics of state-sponsored games such as Powerball. Forget, for a moment, the possibility that the sudden riches could have a damaging effect at some level on the lives of 13 Ohio assembly-line workers and their families — that's always a danger in lottery bonanzas. There are a dozen other concerns as well when the stakes are so high.

“Shakespeare put it best when he said, ‘A fool and his money are soon parted,’” observed Msgr. Joseph Dunne, president emeritus of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling in New York. “Can you imagine how much people give to the Church and the starving people in the Sudan, and here they are spending millions of dollars on foolishness? When you think of the odds — 80 million to one — these people are crazy.”

Msgr. Dunne, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, continues to advise the National Council from his retirement home in Florida. He lumps state lotteries with other forms of legalized gambling, such as casinos, when he calls them collectively “one of the biggest frauds going, created by the states as ‘painless taxation.’”

“The money is supposed to go to education,” he said of lottery revenues, “but surveys have shown that it only goes partially. What happens is, the state gets greedy: they want more and more money from it.”

He considers Massachusetts, which distributes the revenues to various cities for local educational needs, to have one of the best policies.

The Bay State also limits the amount of money it spends on lottery advertising.

Therein lies another problem. Publicity for state lotteries target not only those who like to take chances but also those who would not otherwise think of gambling, Msgr. Dunne charged. Such ad campaigns seem to focus on poor neighborhoods and hit the airwaves on days when pension checks and other sources of income for the needy arrive in the home.

“The elderly are spending their pensions and CDs on this stuff.”

So, when a lottery that is played from coast to coast and has a jackpot of more than a quarter of a billion dollars comes along, there is that much more impetus for people, especially the poor, to jump in.

Many people did much more than that. Folks found themselves caught up in the frenzy, which got a boost from all the media attention, and discovered that they were subject to behaving in ways they weren't previously aware they were capable of behaving. In the end, 210.8 million tickets were sold nationwide.

The District of Columbia and 20 states participate in Powerball, established 10 years ago so smaller states could offer jackpots competitive with larger ones. But the system's creators say they never envisioned some of the excesses that took place when the jackpot increased by about $100 million after the previous drawing did not produce a winner.

“It is inappropriate for someone to wait in line for three to eight hours for a game,” said Edward Stanek, commissioner of the Iowa Lottery. “It is inappropriate for someone coming home from work to get caught in a traffic jam trying to exit the freeway or for someone to suffer heat exhaustion waiting to buy a $1 ticket.”

The fervor led to pilgrimages from states without the game to states that do — from California and Nevada into Arizona, for example, or Texas to Louisiana and New Mexico.

Connecticut sold the most tickets — 32 million — and the staid, affluent town of Greenwich, the first thruway exit and train stop past the New York border, was one of the hardest hit. Hordes of New Yorkers and Jerseyites clogged Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway along Connecticut's “panhandle” or filled normally empty midday commuter trains from Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal. They pushed and shoved on lines, urinated in public, made physical threats when stores closed for the day, and left the region with piles of litter.

“We're on the main road, with three stationery stores nearby, and all had very long lines,” said Msgr. Frank Wissel, pastor of St. Mary's parish in Greenwich. “And there were some altercations. They had police and state troopers at the barricades.”

Those waiting grumbled when some ticket-buyers, including scalpers who then resold them on the streets of New York for five or 10 times their value, bought thousands of dollars worth.

What concerned Msgr. Wissel and other observers was the “intense drive” that led people to make great sacrifices to have a slim chance at winning.

“They believe they can become millionaires, but some of them are spending money they might not have.”

What's more, they were arguably spending time that could have been put to better use. Hopefuls were willing to spend hours in stop-and-go traffic or keep an all-night vigil outside a vendor's shop.

Some felt that with such a large jackpot at stake, spending exorbitant amounts of money was a good idea. One New Yorker reportedly plunked down $10,000, reasoning, “Hey, if I win a quarter of a billion, what's $10,000?”

He lost.

So did Ernie Kovic, a waiter from Bronx, N.Y., who bought 3,000 tickets with money he said he had been saving for tuition.

The Church does not condemn games of chance, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church says they become “morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others.” The passion for gambling, it continues, “risks becoming an enslavement” (2413).

Standing in line 10 hours just might qualify.

Stanek, of the Iowa State lottery, admitted that there are some troubling “philosophical issues.”

“Is there such a thing as having too big of a jackpot?” he wondered.

Msgr. Wissel of Greenwich would suggest capping the jackpot at a certain level and putting un-won monies into education and other charities for which they were intended.

“Winning that much money brings more problems anyway,” he said. Perhaps that's one reason Eleanor Boyer of Somerville, N.J., gave most of her $11.8 million winnings in the New Jersey lottery away last year, half of it to her parish.

Even so, the existence of state-sanctioned gambling, including seemingly innocuous games like the lottery, worry experts on gambling problems.

“Gambling is an unseen addiction,” Msgr. Dunne explained. “That makes it different from drinking. It's present in the schools, in colleges — and Powerball contributes to the delinquency of the youth, when they see their parents playing it.

“It's scandalous for the state to get involved in gambling,” he opined.

Arnie Wexler, a counselor on compulsive gambling in Bradley Beach, N.J., believes that many gamblers in recovery are tempted beyond their strength by Powerball-mania.

“There'll be some relapses, no question about it,” he said.

A study by Harvard Medical School concluded that the spread of casinos and state lotteries, which have especially multiplied in the past 10 years, has been accompanied by sharp increases in the incidence of compulsive gambling among adults and teenagers. The New York State Council on Problem Gambling found a 74% increase in the number of New Yorkers with gambling problems between the years 1986 and 1996.

“There is absolutely no doubt that state lotteries make it worse,” said Laura Letson, the council's executive director.

New York sets aside $1.5 million a year for the treatment of problem gamblers.

“That's still less than 1% of the total realized from the lottery,” Msgr. Dunne said. But it's better than in Florida, which gives nothing to help compulsive gamblers, he added.

The problem has not escaped the notice of the Vatican, which in 1996, because of the spread of state-sponsored gambling worldwide, was reported to be giving the phenomenon a closer look.

Although a few states' Catholic (bishops') Conferences have come out against legalizing casinos in their territories, the U.S. bishops as a body have never issued a pastoral on gambling, and Msgr. Dunne wishes they would produce a statement on how legalized gambling is hurting people.

“They should look at the devastation this is causing in their dioceses. They're hung up on bingo; they think they need it to support the parishes. There's nothing wrong with bingo, any more than there is having a few drinks at the Knights of Columbus hall. You can enjoy it.

But they have no control over the people who play it. Someone who goes to bingo games six nights a week is no longer a social gambler.”

“People don't realize that gambling is addictive, like alcohol or drugs,” he continued. “They borrow money, gamble on credit, then they start stealing.”

Barbara Bush, a clerk at an Amoco Station in Hammond, Ind., for example, said she expected people to start bringing in paychecks, rent, and mortgage payments — and food money — once the jackpot increased.

As for the Lucky 13, each expects to collect about $12.42 million before taxes because they opted to take their winnings in a lump sum of about $161.5 million rather than receive payments totaling $295.7 million over 25 years. Most of the group are trying hard to remain anonymous.

Said their lawyer, Laurence Sturtz, “They're trying to figure out what they're going to do with the rest of their lives.”

John Burger writes from New York.