Report more useful data about lottery players

ONE OF THE biggest arguments against establishing a lottery in South Carolina was that it was wrong for the state government to operate an enterprise that profits from targeting the poor.

So the proponents of state-sponsored gambling hauled out statistics from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution marketing survey that showed the average Georgia lottery player was a white man who made more than $35,000 a year.

The data were clearly misleading, as they told us only whether individuals ever play but ignored how often they play and how much they gamble. And in fact by the time proponents in South Carolina started using them, the newspaper had ditched its marketing company and had new data that showed that those who played five or more times a month were disproportionately black and poor.

It was an important learning experience for opponents, who though unable to stop the lottery still were in a position to help shape the rules. One of those rules was that the lottery had to collect data showing who was gambling. Although it's probably futile to think that our state ever would get out of the gambling business, it's at least theoretically possible that at some point legislators could decide that the way the lottery was being operated was unconscionable, and order changes.

But we never got the data we envisioned. Lottery officials chose to collect and report the information that would make the lottery look like a wonderful, egalitarian thing that was supported mostly by upper-income folks who just wanted a bit of a distraction. And critics, worn out from the fight, did little to protest.

Now the Legislative Audit Committee has called the lottery on its insufficient player data.

In their annual review of lottery operations, auditors said the lottery reports information about demographic groups in a way that makes it "difficult to assess the extent to which these groups play the lottery." It said the marketing company that the lottery contracts with already collects the missing information, and the lottery need only "request that the research firm report it" - which auditors correctly said it should do.

Understand, this audit wasn't conducted by anti-gambling crusaders. Though it doesn't say it, the audit clearly implies that the lottery should find out how often and how much various demographic groups gamble in order to better market to its biggest players.

Lottery officials were happy to go along with the charade, making it sound as though they had deliberately kept themselves (and us) blind to the relevant information in order to avoid the temptation to do just that. The lottery would "consider requesting" the more telling data, it said, "so long as we believe it will not appear SCEL is gathering this information to target certain ethnic groups or economic classes of people."

Of course both the criticism and the response completely miss the point of the data requirement, which was added to the law not to provide the lottery with information about how to operate the lottery but to provide the Legislature with information about how the lottery is being operated. If reporting how often poor people play the lottery makes it look like the state is targeting poor people, it will be because that's what the state is doing. And if that's the case, then either the lottery or the Legislature must act to change that.