April 1, 2008. An op-ed by FPI senior fellow David Dyssegaard Kallick, New York Metro.

Is America Becoming a Lottery Society?

David Dyssegaard Kallick

Over the past few weeks Oregon, for the first time, started holding a series of highly unusual lotteries. Winners will get access to affordable health insurance. Losers won’t.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at this plan. The premise is that there’s not enough to go around, so someone has to be left out. What do you want us to do, give health insurance to everyone?

Unfortunately, the Oregon lottery is hardly an isolated instance. In New York City, where the average sale price of a house or apartment in 2007 was over $700,000, home ownership is falling further and further out of reach for most families. There are smart government policies that give people access to affordable housing, but the number of slots is not nearly enough, and the opportunity to take advantage of them is decided by—what else?—a lottery. “Typically demand exceeds supply for the City-sponsored homes,” the official New York City government web site warns dryly, “so we suggest that you be tenacious and simultaneously enter multiple lotteries.” The statement ends with an unintentionally ominous: “Good luck.”

What about immigration? The process of getting an immigrant visa is a tangled mess, and hopelessly backlogged. Today, the spouse or child of a legal permanent resident typically has to wait five years to get an immigrant visa. The wait is even longer for other relatives—12 years for the sibling of a U.S. citizen, for example. And if you don’t have close family here and aren’t in a special employment category…well, you may never gain legal admission.

Unless, of course, you win the green card lottery! That’s right, a relative handful of people—fewer than 50,000 out of an annual immigration of roughly 1.5 million—are admitted through the green card lottery.

It wasn’t always this way. “What’s good for GM is good for the country” was the motto of a time when Americans took for granted that the middle class would continually expand. The slogan meant that GM workers got good wages and benefits, could own a home, and could send their kids to college. Health insurance was of course part of the middle-class package. So were secure pension plans, more and more of a rarity in today’s economy. It wasn’t a perfect deal. And battles had to be fought to include African Americans, women, Hispanics, and others in that expansive vision of American society. But at least history seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Today, we could decide to provide more abundant public goods. And, as in the case of immigration, we could roll up our sleeves to have sensible and comprehensive solutions rather than government paralysis.

If we don’t, a lottery is as good as any other way to divide a too-small pie.

And in that case…good luck!

David Dyssegaard Kallick is senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute.