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A Lotto Wasted On A Vaccine Push

Why I'm glad vaccine lotteries have apparently failed.

Recently, Business Insider published a great expose on how states have attempted to use the predilections of the poor and dispossessed to increase their Covid-19 vaccination rate by creating vaccine lotteries with virtually no success. I, for one, am pleased these vaccine lotteries have proven to have a negligible effect. Not because I don’t believe the vaccine is effective. I do. I’m vaccinated myself, so don’t waste your breath lecturing me on spreading vaccine misinformation.

The report is worth reading in full, but the main takeaway of Business Insider’s report is that states wasted at least $89 million on vaccine lotteries that failed to impact vaccine uptake among targeted communities.

What started in Ohio, which coaxed residents into getting the vaccine this spring through a $1 million lottery dubbed “Vax-a-Million,” ended up catching on like wildfire throughout the United States, Insider noted. Maryland and New York offered their own versions, respectively called “VaxCash” and “Vax and Scratch,” as did 16 other states.

An initial analysis from the Associated Press found that Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” seemed to work, given that vaccinations spiked 33% in May. Nearly 120,000 people over 16 years old got vaccinated the week after the lottery was announced, whereas just under 90,000 were vaccinated the week prior. The news seemed to be cause for celebration.

However, an analysis of Covid-19 vaccination data from April to July published in JAMA Health Forum last week found that the correlation between state vaccine lottery announcements and increased vaccination rates was “very small in magnitude and statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

Andrew Friedson, a coauthor of the study and associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver, told Business Insider, “There’s a lot of hype around these programs, and we can’t find any evidence that they helped.”

Ultimately, “these were not a great use of funds,” Friedson and his peers concluded.

Friedson apparently told Business Insider that the authors of the study were disappointed with their findings because they hoped the lotteries would have encouraged increased vaccination rates. He added that those millions devoted to such lotteries could have been devoted elsewhere, because “there’s an opportunity cost to spending money. Every dollar that you’re spending on a lottery, you could have been spending on something else.”

Certainly, it’s a bummer those dollars were wasted on vaccine lotteries. Despite that, there are two main reasons why I’m still pleased these vaccine lotteries failed. First, lotteries in general have long worked to undercut the dignity of America’s middle and lower class, who increasingly find themselves unable to get ahead. States use lotteries to exploit the vices and addictions of the most downtrodden in our society—the very people government policy should be attempting to stabilize so their personal chaos does not reverberate through their communities—to raise tax dollars, and whisk away all moral concerns by saying the money raised goes towards children’s education or another good cause. But, state lotteries are nothing more than state-sanctioned gambling, and with far worse odds in most cases that other casino games.

Opposition to government toleration, much less organization, of gambling was once a central tenet of conservatism in America, as TAC Senior Editor Helen Andrews pointed out in a recent piece:

Keeping gambling illegal was once a pillar of social conservatism, up there with abortion and school prayer. Any time a Southern governor proposed getting a state lottery, the Christian right would leap into action. That began to change in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich became the first national politicians to tap casino owners for large donations… Gambling was a vice that bore the same relation to genuine economic activity as drugs to food, a mere simulacrum with the added side effect of eroding personal character. It could be tolerated but not encouraged. By the time it became necessary to muster actual arguments against the spread of gambling in the 1990s, social science had supplanted morality in the public sphere.

Wait Bradley, the difference between regular state lotteries and vaccine lotteries is that people are spending their money on lottery tickets, money that could go elsewhere to improve their livelihoods, whereas vaccine lotteries come at no cost to the participant, other than getting a Covid jab, a vaccine lottery defender might retort. (I won’t even bother quibbling with the lunacy that the public choice theorist might forward to defend state lotteries.)

I don’t see how changing the entrance fee from cash to doing something to your physical body, which they otherwise may not have felt comfortable doing, makes things much better. It certainly does not remove the moral hazard of getting people, some as young as 12 in the case of North Carolina, hooked on this kind of gambling.

The other reason I’m encouraged by the negligible effect vaccine lotteries had on vaccine uptake is it proves what conservatives have been saying all along since the vaccine became widely available. The proliferation of the mostly-effective Covid-19 vaccine means that we can return to normal right this minute. That everyone who wants to get the Covid-19 vaccine has either gotten it or certainly had the opportunity to do so. Those who don’t want it, aren’t, even if you wave a chance at cash in their face. I’m no choice maximalist, but that is their prerogative.

Friedson also acknowledged this in his interview with Business Insider, “If you buy into the idea that vaccines are dangerous – and I can’t stress enough that that this idea is wrong – but if you believe that there’s something sinister going on with this vaccine, it’s unlikely that a payment is going to convince you, regardless of how big it is.” Right, so why the hell are we still wearing masks?

Another argument some may forward in defense of vaccine lotteries is the alternative is vaccine mandates. If we abandon strategies to nudge citizens in one direction or the other, governments on the federal, state, or municipal level, or corporations, will outright shove people into line to get their Covid vaccine. 

This is a false binary.

Where conservative politicians have a governing majority, they should work to outright ban governments, corporations, or other powerful institutions from creating vaccine mandates that function as a precondition for employment, commerce, or societal participation, while pursuing policies that return us to normal. Doing so would demonstrate a real commitment to the base and coalition that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016 because this is yet another case in which the Covid, culture, and class wars collide.

about the author

Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don't include the word "Daily." He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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