The Oregon lottery: It does bad things

videolottery

That giant sucking sound you hear is the Oregon Lottery making off with millions of dollars from Oregonians’ pockets as it keeps adding games to feed the addiction. It’s clear the legislature is just as addicted to the lottery as the players.

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, Oregon lottery players just in my town, Lake Oswego, spent about $5.2 million, according to the Lake Oswego Review. Think about that. $5.2 million generated in one year by a small town of about 39,000 people. That’s $133 for every man, woman and child.

One video Lottery outlet alone, the Speakeasy Bar and Grill at 15700 SW Upper Boones Ferry Rd in Lake Oswego, pulled in $928,932 from Video Lottery last year.

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved the lottery in 1984. It launched in 1985 at a Portland event featuring an 84-foot-tall inflatable King Kong, perhaps symbolizing the behemoth the lottery would become.

Now there’s a rising river of lottery money flooding Oregon. The money has turned the state itself into an addict as Oregon’s lottery take has gone from $87.8 million in 1986 to $1.2 billion in 2016. It’s a very big business, with most of the filthy lucre coming from video lottery games.

The Lottery has approximately 12,000 Video Lottery terminals deployed throughout the state. In Fiscal Year 2016, Video Lottery games brought in $876.5 million in revenues, 70 percent of total lottery revenues.

You know the typical casino ad. The gorgeous blonde’s crystal blue eyes gaze adoringly at the urbane, fashionably dressed man as he places a bet. The couple is surrounded by smiling, equally fashionable friends enjoying the gaiety.

You almost expect Jay Gatsby to stroll into the scene from West Egg and enjoy the fun.

The lottery wants you to see video lottery in a similar way, smiling, lighthearted people engaging in social activity. I guarantee you, that’s not the way it is. Go into any location offering video lottery and you’ll likely encounter a depressing, joyless scene of dispirited, melancholy people mesmerized by a glowing screen.

MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll knows Video Lottery players well. In her book, “Addiction by Design,” she shows how the rhythm of gambling at electronic terminals puts people into a trancelike state in which gamblers keep playing not to win, but so they can stay “in the game” and maximize their “time on device.”

The lure of raking in lottery dollars without having to raise taxes has long been appealing to politicians anxious to satiate government’s insatiable thirst for revenue. In fact, the lottery is often referred to as a “voluntary tax,” though Schüll’s research calls the “voluntary” part into question.

The major problem with state lotteries is that they’re constantly having to come up with new ways to take people’s money because players get bored with the same old thing. “…when sales are adjusted for inflation, … eleven years without novelty or expansion in game categories or sales channels has resulted in flat playership trends and sales that lag behind levels achieved before the economic downturn,” said an Oregon Lottery briefing document.

So the Lottery says it plans to “Modernize our gaming platforms to keep pace with the industry.” Translation – its considering sports wagering games and offering traditional lottery games on mobile devices such as smartphones, giving gamblingaddicts an opportunity to feed their addiction 24/7 as they become dependent on playing the lottery despite the negative consequences on them, their families, jobs and so on.

What’s next?

Oregon Lottery games like craps, slots, blackjack, and roulette using real money?

Don’t count that out, because legislators are addicted, too.

 

 

Moving to the suburbs: addiction and poverty

Linda knows poverty in the midst of plenty.

Her family was desperately poor during her childhood, but they lived in a tony Portland suburb, attending school there with kids who were much more affluent.

Her home environment growing up, however, was far from idyllic. Linda and her siblings were exposed throughout her childhood to drug and alcohol abuse as well as domestic violence.

That led Linda (not her real name) to reckless behavior, including her own drug and alcohol addiction, followed by brief trips to jail. She tried to straighten out on several occasions, but slipped back, returning poverty to the forefront.

In his heart-wrenching novel, “There are No Children Here”, Alex Kotlowitz followed the lives of two young boys growing up in the projects of the near West Side of Chicago. There they were in the midst of ruinous poverty, rampant drug use, run-ins with the police and dysfunctional families.

The book resonated partly because poverty and associated ills are often seen as synonymous with big cities.

But times are changing. Linda now lives in suburban Tigard, not a rundown area of Chicago or inner city Portland.

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As in her youth, she’s experiencing hardship, but this time she’s getting help through collaborative social service programs that promote self-sufficiency for homeless individuals and families. And she’s making real progress toward getting back on her feet. A big break came recently when she got a job.

The suburbs are struggling with an increasing number of residents living in poverty, including Tigard’s home, Washington County, which has a well-deserved reputation as the economic engine of Oregon with thousands of well-paying jobs.

The shift of poverty to the suburbs occurred around 2001, when data showed that more poor people lived in suburbs than in cities. The trend sped up with the Great Recession, which devastated many families.

One-fourth of poor people living in extremely poor neighborhoods in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas are in the suburbs, according to research at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. And suburbs account for four in ten poor individuals in those regions who live in areas of high poverty—a neighborhood poverty rate exceeding 20 percent.

Alan Berube, a Senior Fellow at Brookings, argues that contemporary anti-poverty strategies must recognize the different needs of poor families in both cities and suburbs. The suburbs, for example, often lack the density to deliver services in a distinct area, he says.

Poor families often spread over greater distances in the suburbs, and they face different barriers (transportation, for example) than city dwellers do. Moreover, as poverty spreads to the suburbs, it becomes less a neighborhood problem and more of a regional or sub-regional problem.

Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, say we need to recognize that growing jobs and fighting poverty are not separate initiatives. As U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski put it, the best social program is a job. In addition, we need to engage more partners, particularly the private sector, in efforts to improve outcomes for low-income people and places.

A few years into the painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession, the need remains high.

 

 

Washington County or Casino County?

By Bill MacKenzie

You know the typical casino ad. The gorgeous blonde’s crystal blue eyes gaze adoringly at the urbane, fashionably dressed man as he places a bet. The couple is surrounded by smiling, equally fashionable friends enjoying the gaiety.

You almost expect Jay Gatsby to stroll into the scene from West Egg and enjoy the fun.

Dede’s Café, hiding off to the side in the Hillsboro Promenade at the corner of Southwest Baseline Road and Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro, is the raw reality of the casino Washington County has become.

At Dede’s, six video lottery machines with brightly lit screens are crammed into a space not much more expansive than a large walk-in closet. On a recent mid-afternoon visit, I found all the machines being used by solitary, slightly disheveled men and women in jeans and sweatshirts.

All of them looked hypnotized by the glow of the screen in front of them. Almost motionless, except for the rapid movement of their hands to push the play buttons, they sat mute in the dim light.

A man with a black hat pulled down over his gray hair slipped a $10 bill in one machine and started briskly tapping the play buttons. He got up to $46.45 on Game of Dragons II, but didn’t take his winnings and celebrate. Instead, in a few minutes he fell back to $5.19.

Switching to a Zeus game, he bounced up to $23.49. When he went to $6, he shifted to another game. After 20 minutes of play, when he was down to 35 cents, he slipped in another $20 bill and resumed play.

MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll knows such people well. In her book, “Addiction by Design,” she shows how the rhythm of gambling at electronic terminals puts people into a trancelike state in which gamblers keep playing not to win, but so they can stay “in the game” and maximize their “time on device.”

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved the lottery in 1984. It launched in 1985 at a Portland event featuring an 84-foot-tall inflatable King Kong, perhaps symbolizing the behemoth the lottery would become.

Dede’s Café is now part of a rising river of lottery money flooding Oregon. The money has turned the county and the state into unwitting addicts as Oregon’s lottery take has gone from $87.8 million in 1986 to $1.1 billion in 2013. It’s a very big business.

The lure of raking in lottery dollars without having to raise taxes has long been appealing to politicians anxious to satiate government’s insatiable thirst for revenue. In fact, the lottery is often referred to as a “voluntary tax,” though Schüll’s research calls the “voluntary” part into question.

In fiscal year 2013, 204 lottery retailers in Washington County generated net receipts of $87.7 million from 1,035 video terminals, almost equal to the number of video slot machines at the Wildhorse Casino in Pendleton.

The numbers are even more impressive when you combine net receipts from video terminals with sales of traditional games, such as scratch-its and Megabucks. Together, these totaled $125.7 million in all of Washington County.

Washington County sees a return from all this gambling activity in the form of direct and indirect jobs and money the state devotes to parks, natural resources, education and various economic development efforts.

The county also receives direct payments equal to 2.5 percent of lottery proceeds. This money must be applied to economic development/job creation programs, liberating county revenue for other priorities.

But the lottery bounty also means the county and state are increasingly relying on the generous flow of lottery dollars, which are not a dependable or sustainable source of revenue. If lottery revenue declines, or even fails to grow, a lot of established programs could face tough adjustments.

Washington County residents are getting decidedly mixed messages. On the one hand, business and government leaders are aggressively delivering messages about the importance of education and hard work in achieving success.

At the same time, the lottery undermines the messages by constantly suggesting in tantalizing ads and much ballyhooed winner announcements that riches are just one lucky ticket or one play away.

So go ahead. Make your wager. Just remember that in the end, the house always wins.

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Nov. 11, 2013