Lotto Love

Photo Courtesy of Christian Newton

Photo Courtesy of Christian Newton

Are you one of the more than two-thirds of Canadians who have lost sleep worrying about money? Apparently Bank of Nova Scotia’s tagline: “You’re Richer Than You Think” hasn’t really sunk in with the majority who doubt that “thinking rich” is going to do the trick. Instead, many turn to buying lottery tickets in the hopes (and, in some cases, expectations) that winning the sweepstakes is going to be their financial salvation.

Most societies frown on various forms of gambling. It can act like an addictive analgesic keeping people in a dreamy state of wishful thinking and passivity—fantasizing about the big win and how it will change everything, instead of putting in the effort to improve their lives, step-by-step, by working and saving.

But what if lotteries could be part of the solution? An innovative savings program in the United Kingdom called Premium Bonds rewards savers with a chance to win a grand prize or a series of smaller prizes. It works like this: For every pound that a saver deposits in the bond fund, she gets a chance to win special prizes, including a monthly draw for 1 million pounds. (The interest on the bonds supplies the lottery.) In the U.S., 34 credit unions have developed similar programs called “Save to Win” which return the interest to the saver and also enter her in a draw for smaller prizes.

These programs aren’t geared toward the well-off but to the most vulnerable members of society who typically have no savings at all. For them it’s a double-win: they gain a small financial buffer that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and they might benefit from a larger boon that could set them on a more solid economic footing.

When gaps in wealth increase significantly, as they have in Canada, hoping for a sudden change of fortune is not as illogical as it first seems. Sometimes it’s the only feasible solution for those stuck in a cycle of debt, low wages and diminishing benefits.

A number of factors are conspiring to concentrate wealth in fewer hands. Returns from stocks, real estate and other investments are vastly outperforming those from wages and ordinary savings. Wealthy families like the Weston’s, Thompson’s, Saputo’s and Rogers’ are benefiting from double-digit net worth growth. No amount of hard work and diligent savings can match that.

In the next several weeks Statistics Canada will release a survey on the change in Canadians’ wealth from 2005 to 2012. It will be interesting to see if the trends since 1970 of increased wealth in fewer hands has continued. (According to the Forbes magazine survey, 29 Canadians made the Billion-Plus Club, with the Thompson family topping out at $20.3 billion in 2013.)

Could we be entering a new Gilded Age where a few families controlled vast wealth while the rest remained in a perpetual state of poverty? A University of Paris economist thinks so. In his recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty argues that increasing inequality in wealth distribution will only accelerate and cause grave social problems in the future.

Since an overthrow of the entire financial/political system is not in the cards just yet, it might be a good time for the Government to consider re-jigging the lottery system instead. It’s terrific that Canada’s national and regional lotteries fund various cultural programs with the surplus dollars but goosing people to save for themselves–whether it’s for opera tickets or to pay for needed dental work—would really hit the jackpot.

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