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The embarrassment of state-run gambling

It’s not often that I get to say this, but I was right and I have proof.

If you have been reading my site forever, you’ll remember that I wrote about Jack Whittaker, the man who won a $314.9 million Christmas Powerball jackpot, back on December 29, 2002.  In that posting, I argued that the lottery was bad for the people of West Virginia, who are among the poorest in the nation, because it lures them into wasting money on a prize they have no realistic hope of winning.  I still believe that huge jackpots like Whittaker’s are dangerous, because they give hope to those susceptible to playing the lottery, and the lottery almost never pays off.

Unfortunately, what happened to Whittaker shows that the payoff isn’t always something you’d want.  Whittaker himself has suffered greatly from the burden of winning all that money, according to a recent AP news story and other reports.

According to the Lincoln Journal Star, July 27, 2007, “his granddaughter died of a drug overdose; he was sued for bouncing checks at Atlantic City, N.J., casinos; he was ordered to undergo rehab after being arrested on drunken driving charges; … and he settled a lawsuit filed by the father of an 18-year-old boy, a friend of his granddaughter’s, who was found dead of an overdose in Whittaker’s house.”  The New York Times reported in 2003 that “[m]ore than $500,000 was stolen from a sport utility vehicle that [Whittaker] parked at a strip club,” although the money was recovered.  But Whittaker didn’t learn his lesson, according to another Times report in 2004, because his truck was robbed again of $100,000.

A lengthy September 2007 AP story, part of which appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, tells the most human part of the tragedy.  “His wife left him and his drug-addicted granddaughter — his protege and heir — died.  He endured constant requests for money.  Almost five years later, Whittaker is left with things money can’t cure: His daughter’s cancer, a long list of indiscretions documented in newspapers and court records, and an inability to trust others.”  He still works, starting the day at 5am, but the story reports on Whittaker’s struggles with “drinking, gambling and philandering,” and by his own account, he has been “involved in 460 legal actions since winning” (some baseless, brought by people who figured he could afford to pay out).  The saddest part has to be that he had hoped his granddaughter would inherit his businesses and fortune, and had structured everything to go to her when she turned 21.  But a year after Whittaker won the lottery, the 15-year-old granddaughter was in Oxycontin rehab, and she died just 17 years old with cocaine and methadone in her system and a syringe and pills in her bra.  According to the article, “Her body was found two weeks later wrapped in a sheet and plastic tarp, hidden in a yard by a boyfriend who panicked when he found her dead.”

Come on, people. Lotteries are bad news.  They hurt those who can afford to waste money the least.  (Interestingly, by all accounts Whittaker was a millionare when he won, owning his own pipeline construction company, so he should have been better suited than most to handle the sudden wealth.)  Most people lose every dollar they bet, or win only token amounts.  No one should play lotteries, and no democratic state should be in the business of profiting off these gambling rackets.  Whittaker’s sad story is just one example why.

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