On Christmas morning in 1904, Upton Sinclair first put pen to paper for his novel “The Jungle,” which would soon became a national best seller. It detailed the horrifying working conditions and brutal economic exploitation of immigrant workers in Chicago’s meatpacking district.

The book led to massive public outcry and significant policy reform – not for the workers, but for the meat. The political response focused almost entirely on the unsanitary meat processing methods that Sinclair also happened to expose in the novel, culminating in the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Sinclair, who had hoped the book would help improve conditions for meatpacking workers, lamented, “I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

I would imagine that the journalists at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting are having some similar thoughts these days regarding the public and political response to their series on Maine’s lottery system.

Begun in October, the series is based on the results of interviews, Freedom of Access requests and a study by Cornell University commissioned by the center.

Their reporting explains how the lottery “amounts to a multimillion-dollar tax on the poor,” how the state has become dependent on revenue from ticket sales and how lottery officials have tripled spending on advertising in the last decade and used sophisticated marketing techniques to give poor and desperate Mainers just enough hope to waste their money chasing payoffs that will likely never come.

According to the series, Maine’s poorest towns spend as much as 200 times more per person on lottery tickets than do wealthier areas – and for every 1 percent increase in unemployment in a ZIP code, sales of scratch and draw tickets increase by 10 percent.

The revelations by the Center for Public Interest Reporting were met with relatively muted reactions by public officials. Reviews of the system were promised, but no specific reforms. Even legislators who said they were concerned also said they hoped someone else would handle it.

“We need to be looking at the lottery more closely as legislators. I’d love to see someone with a passion for this put in a bill,” said state Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, as quoted by the center.

“What we really need next is the kind of leadership that says, ‘Wait, this is wrong. Let’s stop it.’ But I’m not holding my breath,” said state Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston.

And that was it … until last week, when the center released an update and a memo showing that Mainers receiving state public assistance and health care coverage had won $22.4 million in prizes over the past five years (likely spending hundreds of millions of dollars they could ill afford in the process).

This time, the response from public officials was as loud and ostentatious as a commercial for scratch tickets.

State Senate Democrats, who had made no statement about the original stories, sent out a news release declaring their intention to “slam the door on any use of EBT funds to buy lottery tickets.” The Maine Republican Party sent out an email claiming “Millions of your tax dollars have been spent on lottery tickets.” Lawmakers of both parties promised that they would address the issue with specific reforms.

These pronouncements are, to say the least, completely disproportionate. The memo in question lumps together enrollment in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (often referred to as “welfare”), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and MaineCare (Maine’s version of Medicaid).

Of the three, only TANF could conceivably be used to purchase lottery tickets, and that’s a tiny slice of the population in question: After the latest round of cuts, fewer than 6,000 Maine families now receive help through TANF, compared with around 77,000 adults who have health care coverage through MaineCare.

There’s nothing to stop people on MaineCare or SNAP from spending their own money on scratch tickets (and lots of state-funded advertising encourages them to), but there’s little evidence to support the claims that significant taxpayer dollars are being spent on Maine’s lottery.

The reason this has become a bigger issue of public concern than the more significant problem of a state-run gambling operation preying on the poor and the desperate is the current environment of anti-welfare hysteria. Most Republicans and far too many Democrats were looking for a chance to spew some bile about Maine’s undeserving poor.

You might say that the center’s journalists aimed for the hearts of public officials, but hit them in their livers.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: miketipping

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