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Lottery Fever Spreads in Jamaica as Economy Crumbles

by Corinne Barnes

16 percent unemployment fuelled by NAFTA
(IPS) KINGSTON -- Fitzroy Stewart, a security guard here, dreams that one day, he will be able to trade his working-class existence for a life of luxury.

Stewart regularly buys a lottery ticket and watches eagerly as the winning numbers are announced on television.

And each week, he turns away disappointed, once again failing to win the millions of dollars which are up for grabs.

"I want to achieve a house and a transport (motor vehicle). The only hope I have to get these is Uncle Sam (migrating to the United States) or lotto. Is just poverty why people have to gamble," says Stewart, who is married with one child, but says he has to support the four children of his deceased sister.

Stewart is typical of thousands of Jamaicans who are hanging their hopes for a better future on games of chance.

Reports from the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission, the body responsible for regulating horseracing and the lottery in Jamaica, indicate that gambling is on the increase. Many attribute this to the continuing deteriorating economic conditions here.

Unemployment now stands at 16.3 percent, fuelled by the closure of dozens of garment factories here over the last three years as businesses fled to Mexico and the benefits afforded them under NAFTA. The financial sector deteriorated over the same time span.

The cost of living continues to rise with the deterioration of the currency. The Jamaican currency now stands at 42.50 to one dollar. Electricity, telephone and food prices are way up, and getting higher.

This week, the Jamaica Public Service Company, the sole supplier of light and power in the country, announced it would increase electricity rates by 12 percent. And telephone rates are also set to move up. Domestic telephone calls will rise by between 24 and 38 percent.

"The increase in electricity rates is going to mean that everything else is going to go up," says one distraught woman who is self-employed and says she is already struggling to pay the current rates.

63% of the island's adult population gambles every week
Unable to see a way out of the cycle of economic hardship, many like Stewart and Dennis McNeish are hoping that chance will change their fortunes.

Fifty-one-year-old McNeish washes cars to support his common-law wife and six children. He earns $83 (3,500 Jamaican dollars) per week and spends $24 (1,000 Jamaican) on the horses and lottery tickets. Last year, he won $238 (10,000 Jamaican) from horseracing. He hopes that one day the lotto will make him a millionaire.

Jamaicans spent some $142.9 million (6 billion Jamaican dollars) on horseracing and lottery tickets last year -- $104.8 million (4.4 billion Jamaican) on horseracing and $38.1 million (1.6 billion Jamaican) on the lottery. This represents a 60 percent rise over the previous year.

This week, the lotto jackpot stands at $381,000 (16 million Jamaican dollars). Thousands of people are hoping that this will be their lucky week and that by spending 20 Jamaican dollars, they will become millionaires.

One of the jingles which the Jamaica Lottery Company uses to advertise its product says: "If you don't have a ticket, you don't have a chance." It is estimated that about 63 percent of the island's adult population takes that chance every week.

"I do it because it is very helpful to me when I least expect it. I spend small amounts -- 20 dollars. If you go out the street, someone is going to beg you and you give it away. So it is no big thing to buy a lotto ticket for 20 dollars, or spend 50 dollars a week on the horses. Sometimes, I long to buy myself an ice cream, but I prefer to use the money to place a bet," says 70-year-old Belinda Green, a retired factory worker.

In addition to horseracing and the lottery, there has been a proliferation of gaming machines all over the island. The Betting Gaming and Lotteries Commission estimates that there are some 7,000 of these machines in the island.

Until recently, the gambling industry was unregulated, and although millions of dollars flow through these facilities annually, very little ended up in government coffers. To cash in on this upsurge in business, the government recently introduced legislation requiring bars, lounges and entertainment centers to be licensed to operate gaming machines.

The new law will also place these entertainment centers under the management of the Betting Gaming and Lotteries Commission. Each facility will be allowed to operate up to 15 machines, with each machine attracting an annual charge of $232 in licenses.

Meanwhile, other forms of gambling are also on the rise. The Betting Gaming and Lotteries Commission says it received 27 applications from different groups to hold bingo parties between February and June this year, compared to 15 applications for all of 1999.

There were also 18 applications for raffles between February and June compared to 18 for all of last year.

"I feel that most people gamble because they are out of work -- and many people are out of work," says 65-year-old Donald Reid, a casual worker, who says he spends between $1.40 and $2.40 on lottery tickets each week.

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Albion Monitor July 27, 2000 (

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