At least one entity in the state is reporting boom times. The Tennessee lottery smashed total ticket sales records during the just-ended fiscal year. Officials say total sales reached more than $1.31 billion, an increase of about $124.6 million over the previous year's sales. Funds now available for lottery-based scholarships and other programs stand at $323.4 million. The money is needed. More than 100,000 students earned scholarships or grants last year.
Good as the news about record lottery ticket sales and the number of scholarships the proceeds underwrite might be, there is a downside to the billion-plus take by the Tennessee Lottery.
The truth is that a majority of lottery tickets are purchased by individuals who can least afford them, and whose children are less likely to benefit from a lottery-funded scholarship. Surveys show that, proportionately, the poor and the under-educated tend to spend a greater percentage of income on lottery tickets, and that their kids earn the grants less often than those with higher income and education levels. No one, of course, is forced to buy a lottery ticket, but the transfer of wealth from the poor to the more financially well-to-do through scholarships is troubling. There is, however, no easy resolution available.
There's nothing wrong with buying a ticket in hope of becoming wealthy beyond one's dreams -- as long as one understands that the lottery is a game of long chances and not a sound investment strategy. Playing the lottery should not be a substitute for pursuing education or for seeking a job, even when current conditions make either difficult. Indeed, when it comes to the lottery, it pays to remember that only one individual or small group beat the odds, hundreds-of-millions-to-1, that a ticket will make them rich.
Win or lose, the state benefits from lottery ticket sales. Many students currently doing well in state colleges and universities, in fact, could not afford higher education before the advent of lottery-funded Hope Scholarships. Now, the number of youngsters who seek higher education within the state and who remain here after graduation is rising. So is the number of well-trained graduates prepared to fill the well-paying jobs that high-tech industries are bringing to Tennessee. Clearly, lottery-based scholarships have helped expand educational and job opportunities in the state.
Still, the lottery does have a problem. It can be a political football at times. In the last legislative session, for example, a Republican senator tried to restrict availability of scholarships because the education fund pays out more annually than it receives. That might seem sensible, but it belies all the facts.
In truth, the scholarship fund has a hefty reserve, and officials report that it can meet demands for years to come. Legislators from both parties united to defeat the proposal. They should join again in upcoming sessions to broaden the availability of higher education funds to state residents. Brisk lottery ticket sales give them the opportunity to do so.