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Do lotteries hurt the poor?

There has long been a debate about whether lotteries take advantage of the poor and feed into a cycle of poverty. On one hand, lottery tickets are inexpensive, meaning that even those with very limited incomes can afford to play. This gives the poor a chance, albeit a very slim one, at dramatically improving their financial circumstances with a jackpot win. However, statistics show that it is the groups already experiencing the most financial hardship that tend to spend disproportionately more of their income on lottery tickets. This raises ethical concerns about state-sponsored lotteries effectively acting as a regressive tax on the poor.

Do the Poor Spend More on Lottery Tickets?

Studies consistently show that lower-income households spend a greater portion of their earnings on lottery tickets than higher-income households. For example, research examining lottery play in Canada found that households making under $25,000 per year spent an average of $600 annually on lottery tickets. This represented about 4% of their total household income. In contrast, households making over $100,000 spent half as much – about $300 annually, which equated to just 0.3% of their income.[1]

Similar patterns have been observed in the United States. An analysis of nationwide lottery data found that households with incomes under $10,000 spent 4-5% of earnings on lotteries. Households earning $40,000-50,000 spent approximately 1% of income, while those over $100,000 spent less than 0.5%.[2] Overall, households in the lowest fifth in terms of income accounted for half of all lottery sales, while contributing just 10% of total US household income.

This data illustrates that lottery play accounts for a disproportionately high percentage of overall spending and household budgets for low-income groups. The very poorest households are spending about 10 times as much of their incomes on lottery tickets as the wealthiest households.

Why Do Lower Income Groups Spend More on Lotteries?

There are several potential reasons why low income groups spend a higher percentage of earnings on lotteries:

  • The poor have less access to other forms of entertainment and recreation, making lottery games more appealing.
  • Lottery games are readily available at convenience stores, gas stations, and other outlets found in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Some view playing the lottery as their only pathway to escaping poverty and attaining financial security.
  • Lower levels of education and financial literacy may contribute to cognitive errors and poor appraisal of small probabilities.
  • Cognitive bias draws attention to the huge jackpots rather than the extremely low odds.
  • Some use lottery games as a coping mechanism or form of escapism from financial stresses.

These factors can lead to the poor spending significant portions of income on lottery games despite the exceptionally long odds and low expected returns.

Do Lotteries Help Fund Public Services?

Most lotteries in the United States are state-sponsored initiatives, with lottery profits used to help fund a variety of government programs and services. Supporters thus argue that lotteries provide an important public benefit. In Fiscal Year 2020, US lotteries generated over $22 billion in profit, with most states earmarking lottery revenues for education programs.[3] Advocates claim that lotteries provide necessary funding for schools, scholarships, infrastructure, senior citizens, and other worthwhile causes that might otherwise be underfunded using tax dollars alone.

However, critics counter that any public benefits derived from lottery revenues are disproportionately paid for by the poor. With lower income groups spending much higher portions of their earnings on lotteries, profits are generated regressively off the backs of those already experiencing financial hardship. Some estimate that households earning under $10,000 annually provide as much as 30-50% of total lottery profits.[4] So while education programs and other government services are receiving funding from lotteries, it is coming at the expense of those least able to afford it.

Are Lottery Funds “Extra” Money for States?

Another counterargument is that lottery funds do not represent additional money for states, but rather replace traditional sources of tax revenue. One study found that states with lotteries collect 8% less revenue from income taxes on average. Essentially, states may fund programs through lottery profits while simultaneously reducing income taxes, resulting in a shift but no net gain in total funding available.[5] Policymakers can also become over-reliant on lottery revenues to pay for government services and programs, which are an unstable source of funding. Just a small decline in lottery sales from one year to the next can force budget cuts.

Ultimately, evidence suggests lottery revenues do not increase total government funds, but simply offset money that would otherwise be collected through broad-based income or sales taxes. Lower income taxpayers essentially pay disproportionately not just for the programs funded by lotteries, but also other public services previously covered by general taxes.

Are Lotteries a Form of Regressive Taxation?

Given that lower income groups provide a disproportionate share of lottery profits, some characterize lotteries as an indirect, highly regressive tax. Unlike progressive income taxes, which charge higher rates on upper income brackets, lottery expenditures do not increase proportionately with income. In fact, the inverted relationship results in an effective tax rate via the lottery that decreases as one earns more money.

Consider an individual earning $10,000 per year and spending an average of 5% on lottery tickets. She will pay $500 annually toward lottery profits. Contrast this to an individual earning $150,000 and contributing just 0.5% of her income to lotteries, which equates to $750. Here, the person earning 15 times more money is contributing just 1.5 times more toward the public good via lottery spending.

Viewed through this lens, state-sponsored lotteries can be regarded as an extremely regressive tax. The tax is also involuntary, since even those opposed to gambling end up contributing indirectly via reduced income tax rates. Focusing specifically on education funding, lotteries force the poor to subsidize public schools and universities disproportionately through lottery “taxes” rather than progressive income taxes.

Lotteries Compared to Other “Sin Taxes”

Some draw parallels between lottery profits and other state-sponsored “sin taxes.” Governments commonly tax goods like alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling activities at higher rates due to moral objections and the public health externalities created. However, sin taxes on products like alcohol and cigarettes still have some relationship to income, with consumption increasing alongside income growth.

Lotteries are unique in that those with the lowest incomes spend much more as a percentage, making lottery revenues the most regressive source of government funding among all the sin taxes. Hence, lotteries are an exceptionally dysfunctional mechanism for funding education and other public services compared to traditional tax policy options.[6]

Do Lotteries Increase Criminal Activity?

Another criticism of state-sponsored lotteries is that they increase criminal activity and the social costs associated. Having a lottery to support public budget needs creates an incentive for governments to promote heavy lottery use, particularly among low-income citizens. However, excessive lottery play is correlated with illegal gambling, loan sharking, and speculation in underground lotteries.[7]

One study found a 10% increase in lottery sales associated with an approximately 4% rise in illegal gambling operations. These illicit gambling markets not only reduce legal lottery revenues, but bring increased criminal activity to neighborhoods. To the extent that government-backed lotteries create incentives for illegal gambling rackets to emerge, the poor can be doubly victimized through reduced public safety.

Problem Gambling Also Rises

Research also shows that access to state lotteries contributes to problem gambling acrossincome groups.[8] Having a lottery can act as a ‘gateway’ to other high-risk forms of gambling. Those prone to compulsive gambling disorders may take money needed for necessities and divert it toward lottery games instead.

So while supporters contend lottery revenues are helping fund education and other public services, they are partly doing so by generating other costs to society in the form of increased problem gambling and criminal activity. These downsides disproportionately impact disadvantaged groups and low-income neighborhoods, compounding economic inequality through reduced security and financial stability.

Do Lotteries Offer False Hope to the Poor?

The disproportionately high lottery spending from low-income groups may signal desperation and misleading hope in the lottery as a financial savior. Chasing a slim chance at a million-dollar jackpot can seem rational when facing extremely limited economic opportunities and social mobility. However, the odds are so astronomically against winning that it is essentially a statistical impossibility. Most people will lose some money over time playing the lottery, representing a negative expected return on investment.

Yet many buy into the hype of big jackpots and lucky numbers, hoping the lottery can provide a quick fix to debt or poverty. State lotteries reinforce these fantasies through sensationalist advertising and convenience store saturation in disadvantaged areas. But in reality, the lottery often just worsens the financial struggles of poor households. The billions spent annually on lottery tickets are funds that could be better spent or saved given the dismal odds.

Undermines Support for Systemic Reforms

Reliance on lottery fantasy to escape poverty may also undermine public support for structural economic reforms. When people view the lottery as their best or only chance at prosperity, they are less likely to advocate for broader policies aimed at poverty alleviation and mobility. Government sponsorship further legitimizes lotteries, moving responsibility away from the state to provide equitable economic opportunity.

Some contend that lotteries allow governments to ignore underlying socioeconomic problems while generating revenue off marginalized groups. Diverting public resources to large jackpots also crowds out spending on evidenced-based programs and services that could provide greater long-term benefits. Ultimately, belief in the lottery as financial salvation sustains systemic neglect of disadvantaged communities.[9]

Do Lotteries Worsen Income Inequality?

Given the regressive nature of lottery spending and impacts on disadvantaged groups, state lotteries may exacerbate income inequality through several pathways:

  • Reduced income security – Lower-income households divert portions of earnings to lottery games rather than necessities and savings.
  • Regressive taxation – Lotteries disproportionately tax the poor to fund public services benefitting all.
  • Crowds out progressive reforms – Overreliance on lottery revenues reduces pressure for progressive taxation.
  • Increased criminality – Lotteries incentivize illegal gambling activity which destabilizes vulnerable neighborhoods.
  • Delays upward mobility – Lottery overspending delays asset accumulation and investments that could improve economic mobility.
  • Delegitimizes redistribution – Lotteries promote individual rather than structural solutions to poverty.

Through these mechanisms, state lotteries reinforce disadvantage for the poor while providing political cover for governments to avoid enacting policies that could create more equitable growth. Some research has empirically linked the introduction and expansion of lotteries to rising income inequality at the state level.[10] While unlikely to be the sole or primary driver, lotteries appear one factor worsening the economic divide.

Potential Reforms and Alternatives

Given the regressive outcomes, some advocate that state lotteries should be abolished. However, governments have become heavily reliant on lottery revenues to fund popular programs and services. An outright ban also may simply drive lottery play underground, exacerbating risks of illegal gambling. Potential incremental reforms include:

  • Earmark lottery funds for low-income communities to keep spending progressive.
  • Impose caps on total lottery betting to limit overspending.
  • Enact targeted tax credits for low-income households to offset lottery losses.
  • Ban convenient forms of lottery play requiring travel to regulated facilities.
  • Introduce more prize tiers to reduce jackpot focus.
  • Restrict or regulate sensationalist marketing of top prizes.
  • Increase public education on true probabilities and risks.

While imperfect, these incremental changes could help mitigate some harms until more fundamental tax and welfare policy reforms are politically feasible. However, there are no easy answers for balancing public revenue needs with ethical objections to state promotion of lotteries.


On balance, the evidence suggests that government-sponsored lotteries disproportionately extract money from low-income groups who can least afford excess spending yet are most susceptible to jackpot optimism bias. State lotteries effectively function as a highly regressive tax while fostering desperation and false hope in the lottery as a financial panacea. While certain public services benefit from lottery funding, it may crowd out progressive tax policy and comes at the expense of income security and economic mobility for the disadvantaged.

Potential incremental reforms could help mitigate harms, but there are no straightforward solutions for balancing vital revenues with ethical qualms over state-backed gambling markets that profit off the poor. However, the poverty alleviating impact of programs funded through lottery dollars must be weighed against the economic harms and inequality sustained by lottery incentives. Only through continued policy analysis can we work toward lottery systems that enhance public welfare without exploiting the most vulnerable.