I grab the Cool 7’s card and scratch it like it’s got an itch, frantically back and forth with the end of a silver paper clip, 17=$10, 15=$20. The last one says 21=$15,000. Now for the “Cool Numbers” box. If I match any of my already disclosed numbers to either of those, I win that amount. I scrape at their metallic cover like a cricket at its legs. I am certain this will be a winner, I feel it, it is supposed to be, except as the silver flakes crumble away my cool numbers are 16 and 11. Zero!
I am out five bucks, unless you count the $27 I have already won while only laying down $20, but then there is the $5 ticket I bought from Belmont Market after claiming my winnings. “Deal or no deal,” it screams. “Deal,” I say to Howie Mandel and his soul patch. Twenty chances to win, except all I come up with are meaningless numbers. Then the next day I get one from the Lucky Seven on Market Street that cashes in. Eight dollars on a one buck purchase!
Tom Thumb manager Sandy Shackelford guides players through the lottery labyrinth. “We can tell them how much they picked for and then how to play it.”
I am playing the state lottery and I feel rich. I am rich, you are rich, we are all rich. Most important, the public schools are rich—supposed to be, anyhow. In 1999, Virginia voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional referendum designating all state lottery proceeds to education. So think about all those little kids who are going to profit because of your haphazard expenditure. You could have spent $5 on a jar of peanut butter, a bag of bread and a 40-ounce bottle of beer—hell, a bag of pistachios, or a block of cheese—but instead you bought a lottery ticket. Or maybe you got all those and had enough left to gamble. Good for you! You must have been thinking of future scholastic opportunities instead of your own gratification.
But guess what?! When you buy a lottery ticket, only a fraction goes towards education. In fiscal year 2007, about a third 32 percent of the $1.3 billion—or $437.1 million—made its way out to the Department of Education, but only a third of that goes directly to state schools.
Not until this March did our lawmakers catch on when the Attorney General’s office discovered—quite by accident—that the procedure the state uses to hand out lottery proceeds to individual localities violates the state Constitution.
The Constitution requires that the profits be sent to the localities from a specific lottery-proceeds fund. The problem is that the money currently goes from that fund to the state’s general fund before being distributed to the localities. Perhaps that explains why Prince William County received more than $70 million during the same period that Albemarle and Charlottesville together got less than $13 million. “Once we turn the money over, we are not a part of that process,” says Paula Otto, the state lottery’s executive director.
In a March 4 statement, the Attorney General explained the mess: “[The Constitution] mandates that the General Assembly establish a fund for net lottery proceeds and distribute such funds directly to counties, cities, and towns, and the school divisions thereof, for the purposes of public education. It further is my opinion that such direct appropriation necessarily means that placing such funds into another fund, such as the general fund of the state treasury, prior to the distribution to the localities and school divisions is prohibited.”
That same day, State Senator Mark D. Obenshain of Harrisonburg introduced legislation created solely to protect lottery proceeds from being used for any purpose other than education. ”[We] have been playing a shell game with lottery proceeds in Virginia,” he stated in part. “We need this legislation to honor our commitment to Virginia.” If passed, Obenshain’s bill would specifically create a special lottery fund that will receive proceeds on a bi-weekly basis, require that the fund is not co-mingled with any other fund or asset, and create a system of payment of the lottery funds to localities solely for educational purposes. For now, the bill languishes in committee.
Since 1999, Albemarle County schools have received $9,239,248 (Charlottesville received less than half that), which rounds out to about a $1 million a year. The proposed budget for Albemarle this year is $151.2 million. The lottery proceeds add up to less than 1 percent of the county’s expenditures.
“It would have a very significant impact if we lost our lottery funding,” counters Jackson Zimmermann, the county’s director of fiscal services. The state only provides $40 million of the county’s overall school budget, and from his perspective $1 million in state lottery profits is a significant chunk of that change. Let’s ask Howie Mandel. For the use of his likeness on the aforementioned “Deal or No Deal” “scratchers,” he got almost $1 million from the state lottery, too.
If life’s for living, what’s living for?
Everyone’s heard the horror stories about lottery winners. There was the lady from Roanoke who won $4.2 million in 1993. Now she owes $154,147 after defaulting on a loan from the People’s Lottery Foundation, a company that services lottery winners who need their money faster than the annual payments can arrive. The foundation lent Suzannne Mullins almost $200,000—she was scheduled for 20 yearly payments of $47,778.84 each—which she agreed to pay back with her yearly checks until 2006. Then she stopped. There is also Hurley, the tubby character from “Lost,” who wins the lottery and then comes to see it as a curse when everyone around him is destroyed and he ends up on an island he can never leave.
“Ninety-nine percent of it was a blessing,” surmises Ron Washington. He is the deli manager at the Kroger in Waynesboro, but lives in Crozet. He was at work one day last year—frying chicken, as usual—when Cheryl Smith came up to him. Smith had worked there for 20 years, he only 17. They were so close they were like siblings. She had accidentally punched out a $20 lottery ticket as part and parcel of her job. Did he want to split it?
Two weeks later and $10 poorer, Washington picked up the cast-aside ticket and noticed a certain congruity to the winning numbers being read on TV. He told his wife and she scoffed. He wasn’t excited enough, she would say later, days after he had split a cool $1 million with his friend Cheryl. Of course, Uncle Sam took his third, but that still meant a lump sum of a few hundred thousand dollars.
“It seems like more than it is,” Washington says now. He is still at the Kroger, still working full-time. “I thought I would work less hours,” he says, but it has not quite turned out that way.
When Washington won the lottery, it was amazing, though, the timing of it all. His three kids were all in college and he suddenly had their tuition money. “It meant I didn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck,” he says. With only a few years now until retirement and a pension on the way, the deli manager is feeling pretty good about the future.
“The lottery offers an illusion of hope that is really stacked against the player in favor of the house,” says Jon Barton of the Virginia Council of Churches. “Any kind of dream for a quick fix—that it will make your life better all at once—disproportionately affects your lower-income people.” For him, the lottery offers “false hope” to “drowning people.” He cites the Virginia Interfaith Center’s website, where I find a paper by the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. Published in December 2005, the paper offers an analysis of lottery sales and lottery disbursements to education in the state.
Analyzing data from the fiscal years 2000-2004, the authors conclude that minorities often tend to both live under depressed economic conditions and to buy more lottery tickets. “A locality’s per capita income was significantly related to lottery sales,” says the study. “Specifically, income is negatively related to lottery sales at a 95 percent significance level.”
“Localities that have higher per capita incomes and localities with higher percent African Americans tend to get fewer disbursements,” the study continues. “Our results show that the implicit tax inherent in the Virginia lottery falls disproportionately on those individuals who have the least ability to bear it.”
Boiled down, the study makes the argument that the lottery acts as a regressive tax on the poor, specifically blacks. “I would be concerned about that if it were actually true,” says Otto. She was the lottery’s first director of public relations back in 1987. Now she runs it. “All different types of people play the lottery.” Indeed, the Virginia Lottery has figures from a survey conducted last year that show something else, namely that only 19 percent of those that play the lottery make less than $30,000 in a household income but another 26 percent make less than $55,000 combined. “The lottery is a personal choice,” says Otto. “We do not have low-income persons playing disproportionately.” Thirty-five percent of the 6,000 people polled said they make over $80,000. I wonder if they got that money from playing the lottery.
When in the course of human events
Thomas Jefferson is credited with calling lotteries “a wonderful thing, it lays taxation only on the willing.” He was presumably thinking of the numerous lotteries that had helped build his America. The First Great Virginia Lottery in 1612 provided half the budget for the settlers of Jamestown. In 1768, George Washington sponsored a lottery to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. By one source, there were about a half-dozen respectable lotteries operational in each of the 13 colonies prior to the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, and it was proceeds from the United States Lottery in 1777 that paid for the provisions for Washington’s troops.
Fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, the founding father found himself in debt, deep debt, so he (and his grandson) came up with the idea of disposing of some of his holdings by raffle. As the lottery was illegal, he was forced to seek special permission from the state legislature, and after an initial defeat, the state assembly passed a bill that authorized Jefferson “to dispose of any part of his real estate by lottery, for the payment of his debts.”
Subsequently, Jefferson and his grandson turned to lottery brokers in New York, who devised a scheme advertising that the winning combination would be drawn from 11,477 tickets at $10 each with three prizes: Monticello (valued at $71,000), Shadwell Mills at $30,000, and a third of the Albemarle Estate at $11,500, for a total of $112,500. However, just as the lottery was scheduled to start, Jefferson was persuaded that the money could be raised by voluntary public subscription. Such a plan would also allow Jefferson to hold onto his dear Monticello.
Lotteries were also used to help establish Yale, Princeton, William and Mary and UVA, but by the 1850s had fallen out of favor after a series of associated frauds and scandals. Many states constitutionally banned lotteries and it was even addressed by U.S. Congress. Then, in 1964, New Hampshire adopted the practice. Virginia began selling lottery tickets in September 1987 after a 57 to 43 percent vote in favor. (Forty-one other states now have the lottery, as well as the District of Columbia. Thirty years ago, only two states allowed legalized gambling. Now only two do not have some form of it.)
If the state needed a model for business, they only had to look to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). First established in 1934, ABC has contributed over a billion dollars to the Commonwealth in the last five years alone. Fiscal year 2007 made for a record $607.4 million in annual gross sales. Like the lottery, the ABC brags of its dispersal to beneficial programs, in this case mental health and substance abuse. But when I buy a jug of whiskey, there is no sign on the wall shouting where the money will go, as there is with the lottery profits. Yet, the lottery only accounts for about 6 percent of state funding for local school districts, and with a projected deficit of $1,539,277 for Albemarle County for the upcoming fiscal year, the state lottery’s persistent proclamations of paying for public education seem almost negligible.
I’ve got a feeling
“I bet you’ve never been in a store with two lottery computers, have ya?” asks Sandy Shackelford, somewhat rhetorically. She has been a manager at the Tom Thumb mini-mart on Cherry Avenue for 15 years. Before that, she managed the Lucky Seven over on E. Market for another 15. Both stores now have green signs above their lotto stations that announce the amount they raised for public schools in 2007. The Lucky Seven on Market bequeathed $77,997.21 to the state’s education system. How many dollars did Tom Thumb Food Mart contribute to Virginia’s public schools? $539,665.03!
“This is a lottery mecca,” Shackelford says, racing in between both lottery computers. Wearing a red sweatsuit and dingy white Reeboks, she is dressed for a workout and that’s exactly what she gets as customer after customer wades in to the hole in the wall in the Cherry Avenue shopping center. Each she greets with due diligence, taking their cards and tickets and giving them a quick perusal. One young man comes in with a scratcher and asks for $10. Shackelford squints through her glasses. “No, honey, you made $60,” she tells him. He looks on dumbfounded as she takes him through it, pointing to the letters that are sprinkled around the meaningless numbers that indicate he won six times what he originally thought. “You gotta pay attention to your codes or else they’ll rob you.”
Not with Shackelford and her keen eye. “I’ve been doing this since the lottery started,” she says, world weary. Before the state decided to legalize gambling, her brother was a numbers writer. People came to him to place their precious few dollars on an elusive figure. Now, Shackelford is their guide, taking them through the murky depths of the numerical labyrinth. She has people come in all day and all week, picking their numbers and jabbing their filthy cards into her delicate face. “We can tell them how much they picked for and then how to play it,” she says, her words emphatically clipping the tip of her tongue.
They—the myriad “they”—have come in here to play the numbers, Pick 3, 4, or even 5. They also might be signing up for the Mega Millions for just $1. Only recently, the multi-state lottery pool got as high as $270 million but the February 16 draw found a sole winner. Someone from Portal, Georgia, by the name of Bobby Harris picked the numbers from his trailer home and his wife, Tonya, bought the two $1 tickets just hours before the drawing.
The Harrises reportedly plan to take their winnings as a lump sum, which would leave them with $164 million before taxes. According to CBS, Bobby wasted no time checking into Atlanta’s Ritz Hotel. “It was something different,” he told the TV station. “Not a suburban lodge, anyhow!”
In addition to him, 36 players matched all five numbers, but not the Mega Ball number. They received second prizes of $250,000 each. Three of those were from Virginia—the closest was Chet Carwile from Rustburg, just south of Lynchburg. “I fell down on the floor and nearly had a stroke,” he later told lottery officials. Another 207 players matched four numbers, plus the Mega Ball number—good for third prizes of $10,000 each.
I—fool!—played it on the previous Tuesday when the total was at $220 million and got…absolutely…nothing.
“You’re just like me,” says Shackelford. In all these years, the most she has ever won is $1,200. She got that by playing the Pick 3.
“It depends on what I have a feel for,” she says of her own playing habits. “If I got a good feeling about a number, I might go 50/50, so if it comes a different way, and if it’s a six way number I still get $40.” Every Pick 3 ticket has six columns. One is for a day or night drawing. The rest of the columns are for three numbers each and have different options to play them. “Most people, when they play, go 50-50,” says Shackelford. I have a feeling in my stomach—or the fancies in my mind—and go with the projected birth date of my as-yet-unborn son, April 8, or 4-0-8, for 50/50. Surely, my fetal child will bring me good luck.
“I have people that tell me their dreams,” the mart manager says. Well, it just so happens that I saw the number 300 in a dream the week before. I don’t remember anything else of the vision but am sure it came to me for a reason. 3-0-0 it is, a dollar, for 50/50. By the time I pick three more, it has cost me four whole dollars. I only have some 70 cents on me now and Tom Thumb does not take credit cards.
“Some people will play $10, $15, or even $20 straight on a number,” Shackelford says. Ten dollars on one number is potentially worth $500. “If you get 10 tickets, that would be $5000.” While we stand there, a man in his 40s with a flat-top strides in with purpose. He has just won $40 on a Pick 3. By the time he leaves it is all gone, invested in more numbers.
I would like to play my birthday, I tell Shackelford. 10/11, I say. “Oh my goodness,” she exclaims, grabbing an empty Pick 4 ticket. “I’ve got beaucoup people that play that number here.” My interest is aroused. “On this number, if you put 50 cents any order, you will get $600.” I stick my index finger and thumb into the change pocket of my brown corduroys and find two quarters. “All right, now I’m broke,” I say, handing them to Shackelford as she smiles.
Another man wanders in. His thatch of black hair extends in all different directions as if it is defying the ceiling. He stumbles over to the cooler and returns with two forty-ounce beers as yellow as urine. Placing those on the counter, he then makes his way to the automatic lottery machines and comes back with a dollar “scratcher.”
I will gladly drop $10 on a bottle of wine or $5 on a pack of smokes, but I’ve never been particularly fond of gambling, primarily for the reason that $5 or $10 on the lottery is no guarantee. I know what I’m getting from a bottle of Spanish red. Meanwhile, I have been playing the numbers for three weeks and am down at least $30 now. On my first two $5 cards, I made $27. Things were looking good and I was excited, but since then I have only made $8 at far greater costs. I will stop playing—I must—in a day or two, maybe a week, but for those that flood into marts and groceries around town to play—many day after day—it seems just like any other old addiction. One afternoon in the Tom Thumb, the steady stream of lottery buyers is interrupted by a haggard man in need of a different kind of fix. “Rose pipe…I need a rose pipe,” he says to the mart manager, as she turns to grab one of the makeshift glass crack pipes from an open box.
“It’s a habit,” says Shackelford, handing me the printout of my Pick 4 ticket as I step back from the counter and prepare to leave with only a few dirty pennies and a diminished dime left. “I hope I bring you some luck, honey. Six hundred dollars in your pocket sure would be nice. You’d be a happy man.”