When there is mischief to be done in the public realm, it is most apt to be done in the name of children. We will make any sacrifice for the kids.
So it is with the election in Arkansas, where voters are given two destructive propositions, each touting the premise that it is needed to give children a better life.
One would shrink the pool of caring people who would like to offer good homes to the thousands of abandoned, neglected and maligned children left to the protection of the state government. That is Initiated Act 1. It would prohibit such good deeds unless people had a bona-fide marriage certificate.
The other directs the government to establish a lottery so that people can bet part of their livelihoods on a pick of random numbers in forlorn hope of collecting a fortune. The part of the state's loot left after administrative and promotional costs, the payouts and the gaming franchise profits would go for college scholarships. The constitutional amendment might pass without the scholarship proviso but that is what cinches it.
The proposition to limit what judges and child-welfare workers can do in adoptions and foster-care cases is part of the agenda of the Arkansas Family Council, which seeks to punish gays, lesbians and other unmarried couples because the group believes that God does not approve of them. It would put government policy in line with a verse or two in the Book of Leviticus.
We have had occasions in our short history, from the Salem Witch Trials forward, and from the long history of civilization to learn that it is a terrible mistake to make law from narrow religious doctrine. The government is not an able servant of the church or the mosque.
The sponsors of Act 1 believes that God does not want unmarried people around children much less have the privilege of giving them a home life. I am not sure personally of God's feelings about human sexual proclivities but I'm very sure of His keen interest in the welfare of children.
More than 3,700 children of absent, neglectful or abusive parents are in the custody of the Arkansas government on any given day and the state can find foster homes for only some 1,100 of them. As we have had too many occasions to learn with the reports of abuse and death, some of those homes are even worse than warehousing children in group homes and shuttling them from one emergency shelter to another. Arkansas has one of the highest rates of transfer of these poor children in the country.
By barring any unmarried couple from serving as adoptive or custodial parents, Act 1 would perpetuate this situation and make it even worse by rigidly restricting the ability of judges and social workers to find the best home for these desperate children.
This all started with a foster-care board appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee from his evangelical disciples. It eliminated gay couples from serving as foster parents even if there was no better option or any other option at all. The state Supreme Court unanimously struck down that restriction because there was no evidence that the discrimination was good for the children.
A phalanx of retired judges, pediatricians, social workers and public officials, including Gov. Beebe, say that it would be destructive to children to reimpose this bit of bigotry as law. I think voters will agree.
On the lottery probably not. The appeal of lotteries is not mysterious. Lots of people want to play them for the thrill of the gamble and the long chance that they will hit the jackpot and never have to work again. Others may never or rarely buy a lottery ticket but think of it as a way to pay for government without taxes. Lotteries have been called a tax on stupidity, and to many that seems to be a better way to pay for government than taxing labor and entrepreneurial endeavor. Since the stupid are the principal beneficiaries of government (so the idea goes) let them pay for it.
The clincher is that the sponsors of Amendment 3 say it would produce $100 million a year for scholarships, supplementing the $65 million or so that the state spends now and tens of millions more colleges carve out of their state funds for scholarships. The $100 million is a pipedream. Kansas and Iowa, the two states with lotteries that are almost exactly Arkansas's population, have had lotteries for more than 20 years and hit their peaks last year, Kansas at $70 million, Iowa at $61 million. But they have far fewer poor people than does Arkansas. And regardless of the prohibition in Amendment 3, the legislature and colleges will use lottery proceeds to supplant their current spending.
The libertarian argument is that government should not be a nanny protecting its people from all their base impulses and human weaknesses, like gambling. It is one thing for the government to try to shepherd citizens along the straight and narrow but quite another for the government to be the agent of their destruction. A lottery is a state-run numbers racket.
Some 20 percent of Americans are frequent players, and by far most of them are struggling people of low incomes. The sponsors of Amendment 3 insist that lotteries are not regressive, but that is baloney.
A lottery-playing household with a gross income under $13,000 a year spends an average of $645 a year on lottery tickets, which lowers the quality of life for those families. For people who live day to day and do not have 401(k)s to assure their security and need hope, states have given them lotteries and payday lenders.
Governments everywhere have to hawk their lottery products with increasing intensity and cleverness to keep the poor buying and the revenues flowing by telling them that work and frugality are an uncertain way and that they can build a great future with lottery tickets.
Arkansas will be doing that in a few years, and it is a sight we should contemplate with sadness.