Recent revelations of big lottery prizes awarded to Mainers who get public assistance have lawmakers from both parties calling for a ban on the use of state benefits to buy lottery tickets.

But those seeking a crackdown are seeing only part of the picture. For every one lottery winner on state aid, there are thousands more needy people who win nothing – though they spend far more on tickets than their wealthier neighbors do, thus funding an aggressive state marketing campaign. If lawmakers really want to stop subsidizing gambling, they shouldn’t hold the poor accountable while continuing to let the lottery evade scrutiny.

Recipients of public assistance have won $22.4 million in Maine State Lottery prizes since 2010, including eight jackpots of at least $500,000 apiece, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting disclosed this week, citing a Maine Department of Health and Human Services memo.

The report – the latest in a series – has revitalized both Republican and Democratic efforts to prohibit benefits spending on lottery tickets. And both parties also want to clarify when lottery winners should be automatically disqualified from benefits rolls.

We agree: People who’ve won hundreds of thousands of dollars should be able to pay for their own food and health care without state help.

But as behavioral economist David Just told the news service, “the real story here is how much people had to spend in order to win these amounts.” Given the long odds of winning, he estimated, players would have to buy hundreds of millions of dollars in losing tickets to take home the $22 million in prize money. In fact, residents of Maine’s poorest communities spend up to 200 times more per person per year on lottery tickets than residents of more-well-off areas, Just has found.

The disproportionately high take from poor residents of Maine has helped boost the lottery’s budget for a full-court advertising press intended to entice young people and encourage impulse buys. But the lottery hasn’t been investigated or censured for using tax dollars to convince the most vulnerable to take a chance on long-shot games. Indeed, an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability inquiry first sought in 2007 has consistently been put on the back burner.

Meanwhile, what’s galvanized attention in Augusta? A proposal that the state punish people for playing the same lottery that it’s been spending several million dollars a year to promote. If lawmakers don’t address both sides of this equation, the suggested reforms won’t remedy anything.

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