As millions of Americans begin receiving stimulus payments amid the coronavirus crisis, an antigambling group is pushing to suspend lottery betting.
On Monday, the organization Stop Predatory Gambling plans to send letters to attorneys general and governors in 45 states and the District of Columbia, asking for lottery betting to be immediately shut down until at least 30 days after stimulus payments are received. State lotteries include jackpot drawings, scratch-off tickets and video lottery terminals.
Les Bernal, national director of the group, said people spend money on the lottery to change their financial condition, especially when they are feeling desperate.
"Yet state government is continuing to market its lottery gambling games at the very same moment that citizens are receiving their economic relief checks from the U.S. Treasury," Mr. Bernal writes in the letter, an early copy of which was shared with The Wall Street Journal.
Lotteries have remained accessible during the pandemic. Convenience stores and gas stations have been deemed essential businesses. Six states also offer online lottery ticket sales. But sales have taken a hit. The multistate lotteries Mega Millions and Powerball are eliminating minimum jackpots.
Mr. Bernal said Americans spending money on the lottery right now defeats the purpose of stimulus: providing for families in need and encouraging consumer spending in the broader economy.
About 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits since the country began shutting down last month. The federal government has begun issuing one-time payments of up to $1,200 for each adult as part of an economic relief effort.
With huge swaths of the country closed for business, state lawmakers are bracing for plummeting tax revenues, and voluntarily eliminating lottery revenue could be a tough sell. State lottery sales in the U.S. totaled nearly $76 billion in 2018, according to recent census data, and paid out nearly $49 billion in prizes.
Gordon Medenica, director of the Maryland State Lottery & Gaming Control Agency, who has also managed lotteries in New York and New Jersey, said he dismisses the idea of suspending lotteries during the pandemic as an excuse for antigambling activists to push their agenda.
The Maryland lottery generated $593 million for the state's general fund from $2.2 billion in sales in the 2019 fiscal year. Other states dedicate lottery funds to specific uses like education.
"That's the primary reason that lotteries exist, to make money for good causes," Mr. Medenica said.
Maryland has suspended advertising the lottery because the commercials seemed "tone deaf" in light of the pandemic, he said. The state's 4,500 retail lottery outlets include now-closed restaurants and bars, cutting into sales. And daily sales from groceries and gas stations, he said, have declined as much as 30%.
People with lower incomes spend a larger share of their money on lottery tickets than those who are better off, said David Just, a behavioral economist at Cornell University. And those poorer people are motivated to buy lottery tickets by their need for more money, rather than entertainment value, he added. Mr. Just studied Maine lottery data and found that when the unemployment rate went up by 1% in a given ZIP Code, sales of tickets for lotteries with drawings increased by 4.7%.
"This is the only way to preserve this dream of climbing out of poverty for some," Mr. Just said.
The odds of winning the Powerball grand prize are 1 in 292,201,338, according to the contest's website. Only Utah, Nevada, Alabama, Hawaii and Alaska have no lottery.