New Maine Lottery Game Rule for People on Welfare: Play, But Don’t Win (Too Much)

A customer purchases a Mega Millions lottery ticket at a store in Damariscotta, Maine, on July 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The idea seems so simple and nonpartisan that even the Democrat who chairs the Maine Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee has to agree.

Rep. Drew Gattine said people on welfare should not be allowed to buy lottery tickets.

Federal law says people receiving food stamps can play, but they can’t win.

In Maine, they could become millionaires. But that has changed, as of Oct. 25.

Sam Adolphsen, chief operating officer of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, told Pine Tree Watchdog that hypothetically it was possible for someone on welfare in Maine to buy a lottery ticket, win a million dollars, and still be eligible for food stamps.

He said that’s just wrong.

“Taxpayer dollars should be going to the neediest people in the state and absolutely not subsidize gaming in any fashion,” Adolphsen asserted.

But it has happened. In fact, it’s happened quite often.

Okay. Maybe people on welfare didn’t become lottery millionaires. But, DHHS’ own data showed nearly one of every four who hit jackpots in the Maine lottery was receiving government benefits for the poor.

The number of people collecting welfare or food stamps in Maine is only a small fraction of the state’s population. The Press Herald reported that from 2010 to 2014 there were 4,856 winning lottery tickets of $1,000 or more cashed by 3,685 people who were receiving food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or MaineCare.

While the number of people playing may not be large, the winners collected more than $22 million in lottery prizes while on welfare.

Now the Maine DHHS, with the blessing of Gov. Paul LePage, has mimicked federal regulations so state residents on welfare can play the numbers (oops, the lottery) – they just can’t win, at least not too much.

“In no way, shape or form should taxpayers be asked to foot the bill for someone who is gambling and winning huge amounts of money,” said Mary Mayhew, health and human services commissioner, in a statement.

While the new rule doesn’t forbid people on welfare from playing lottery games, it does allow for the immediate cutoff of food stamp benefits when a player wins $5,000 or more in one calendar month.

A welfare recipient who claimed prizes of $5,000 or more in a month could reapply for benefits the next month, but the previous month’s winnings could be counted as an asset that might be enough to stop him from receiving TANF benefits.

“Welfare benefits shouldn’t be used for gambling or lottery, and someone who beats the long odds and ‘wins big’ shouldn’t continue receiving assistance while he or she has that money,” Mayhew added. “Along with our recent ban on using welfare benefits to purchase lottery tickets, this rule makes sure that taxpayers aren’t subsidizing gambling or giving benefits to those who have other means.”

Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the new rule isn’t needed because the federal Agriculture Act of 2014 bars people with “substantial” lottery or gambling winnings from receiving food stamps.

However, as the Press Herald pointed out, Washington bureaucrats have yet to define how much money it takes to cross that “substantial” threshold.

Mayhew argued the new rule is not redundant, but it is consistent with congressional guidance.

“Just like when we limited the amount of assets someone could have while receiving welfare benefits,” Mayhew said, “this change ensures individuals are not using the program when they don’t need it. It allows taxpayers to have faith in the system and know their tax dollars are going where they are most needed.”

That may all be true, but Rep. Gattine told Pine Tree Watchdog that he believes those concerned about people on welfare playing the lottery are missing the real point: It’s the state government’s own fault that people on welfare are playing Maine’s lottery games.

“This is a problem we created. Our state-funded lottery uses advertising to market itself very effectively,” said Gattine. “The state is selling something to people that they shouldn’t be buying and then they want to tell people they’re bad for buying it?”

Gattine’s co-chairman on the Health and Human Services Committee, Republican Eric Brakey, said that the state of Maine should not be telling people what they should or should not be doing with the money they have earned.

But when they are spending state tax dollars, that’s different.

“We should be doing everything possible to ensure public money isn’t being diverted into things that aren’t helping people get out of poverty,” said Brakey.

Hastedt agreed that welfare recipients are being sold an unrealizable dream when they line up for lottery tickets. But it is the state of Maine that is doing the selling.

That’s why Hastedt has a real problem with the portrayal of welfare recipients as villains because they buy a lottery ticket and win.

“These are very poor people. Most of them have turned to the lottery because they see no other option,” said Hastedt. “They’re desperate.”