I remember when I was about 7 or 8 years of age, the two elderly ladies who lived downstairs from my family would give me a ladies' handkerchief tied in a knot with some coins and a piece of paper inside. They would have me walk up the street and give it to another lady about two or three times a week. Of course, I would get a piece of candy or a nickel for doing so. Little did I know at the time that I was "playing the numbers" for them.
Back then it was a game of chance that involved a few pennies bet on a number, which I believe came out each day in the newspaper business section. I think it had something to do with the closing number on the stock exchange or something like that. I can hear the older folks who are reading this article saying exactly what it was and how the winning number was retrieved. I am sure they remember.
Fast forward to the early 1970s, I believe, when the states began commandeering the numbers racket, primarily run in Black neighborhoods, and turned an illegal activity into a legal game of chance, called the Lottery, which has evolved into what I call the "Lootery." The few coins in the handkerchief and the hopes of winning $25 or so have changed to monthly shell-outs of hundreds of dollars by individuals with hopes of winning millions of dollars. The only thing that has not changed among many Black folks is the dream book that tells what number to play if you happen to dream about death, or the sky, or a trip, or a meal, or a new job, or a car, or a truck, or the devil, or God, or you name it. Whatever the dream, there was a corresponding number attached to it.
The lines formed at the stores and folks started spending millions and billions on "the number," all in an effort to "hit it." Many folks would use their last dollar, their rent money, their bill money, their lunch money, to take a chance because they had a feeling or a certain dream, or saw a certain number somewhere. The funniest thing was the folks in line with their sheets of paper and their long list of numbers to play each week. When they got up to the counter they would almost whisper the number to the clerk. I often wondered why they would do that; I attributed it to a scarcity mentality and the fact that some of us don't want our brother or sister to prosper, thus, we keep our winning numbers to ourselves.
The recent $580 million Powerball jackpot, the largest in history, was the craze of new wave "Lootery" players. Some folks spent hundreds and thousands of dollars on 1 chance in 175 million to win all that money. Finally on Thursday morning, November 29, millions of people were tearing up their worthless tickets as their dreams of winning the prize were dashed. The "Lootery" had gotten them again.
I guess it's fun and it feels good to imagine what you would do with a few hundred million dollars, and except for those who hit it big and then lived in misery after winning, most people would do some very good things with their windfall. But, in general, the "Lootery" has become a legalized frenzy of transferring hard-earned dollars mostly from those who can least afford it, to high-salaried "Lootery" directors and others who just love it when those balls start dropping through the tubes. They always win, no matter which numbers come out. Sure, some of the money goes to schools, but where is the benefit when it comes to our children receiving a better education? In general, the "Lootery" is just another regressive tax.
Here's my solution to making the Powerball "Lootery" at least a bit more palatable and the chances of winning a bit higher. When the total gets to $100 million, let the drawing be for 10 winners of $10 million each. As the pot increases, the individual amounts for the 10 winners increase proportionately. I am no mathematician, but it seems simple enough to me; just have 10 drawings. If only one person wins among the 10 drawings pay out one-tenth, move on to the next week, and draw 10 once again. I am sure some of those highly paid "Lootery" directors can figure it out.
My point is this: If we are going to have $500 million as a prize, why not intentionally spread that prize to more people. I would love to see 10 winners of $50 million, or even 100, $5 million winners, rather than one winner, or even two splitting a $500 million pot. Think about that when you're standing in the next line of "Lootery" hopefuls and dreamers. Who knows? Maybe there can be some changes made in how the prize money is allocated, and you will have a better chance of winning. Oh yeah, remember a brother when you hit.
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation's most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati