Lottery Funds Help Elite At Expense Of Poor|GUEST COMMENTARY

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    By JANICE MATHIS
    I live in Athens, Ga., where Kiddie Condos and SUVs abound.  They are the unintended consequences of lottery-funded scholarships.  Wealthy parents who don’t have to pay tuition, send their kids to luxuriate in Athens while they attend the state’s flagship university.  Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, aided by capitulation of some Democrats in the General Assembly, have decided to make the Georgia Lottery-funded Hope Scholarship even more unfair and elitist.  In order to win lottery scholarships Georgia students must take more challenging high school courses, achieve at least 1200 on the SAT and maintain a 3.7 grade point average.

    It is difficult to evaluate this proposal without considering the purpose of the Hope Scholarship. Is it to make sure that the highest-achieving students remain in the state for college? Is it to help promising but needy students afford college? Is it to mask the effect of a declining commitment to education? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Where you stand on lottery -funded college scholarships depends on your perspective.

    According to one study, “because of HOPE, enrollment for youth from families with incomes above $50,000 rose 11.4 percent, but the program has had no effect on enrollment of youth from poorer families.” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently indicated that “the best solution to income inequality is providing a high-quality education for everybody.” The same study concludes that “HOPE appears to have benefited White students more than Black. Compared with nearby states, college attendance among White students in Georgia rose 12.4 percent faster from 1993 to 1997, but remained virtually unchanged for Black students.”

    Especially when one considers the percentage of one’s annual income spent on state lotteries, the inescapable conclusion is that lotteries function as a highly regressive tax, impacting the disadvantaged far more than the privileged. I saw the effects in my own family.  A dear relative  spent a healthy chunk of her meager monthly income on the lottery. Of her 30-odd grandchildren, only one received the HOPE scholarship.

    On average, lottery states spend about 50 percent of their total state budgets on education, while non-lottery states spend an average of 60 percent. This seems to clearly demonstrate that once lotteries start to fund schools, states spend less of their budgets on education and instead spend money on other programs. The actual revenue produced by the lottery, then, is not actually increasing education funding at all, but serving whatever programs the Legislature is most eager to fund.

    In the fall of 2000, two public policy researchers at the University of Georgia, McCrary and Pavlak, undertook an extensive telephone survey to more exactly determine the economic impacts of the Georgia State Lottery. Their findings seem to clearly demonstrate that the Georgia Lottery has the impact of helping the privileged with the money of the poor.

    The bulk of the Georgia Lottery’s educational expenditures are through the HOPE Scholarship Program. The McCrary and Pavlak study clearly indicates that recipients of HOPE scholarships are primarily White. More importantly, they are also most likely to be children of casual players or people who do not play the lottery at all, and their parents most likely have a college degree or some college education.

    Before the state of Georgia stiffens HOPE eligibility requirements, Governor Deal and the Legislature should explain to the people of Georgia what policy goals they are attempting to achieve.

    Attorney Janice Mathis is the Southeast Regional Director of Rainbow/PUSH based here in Atlanta.

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