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Why is The Lottery even a thing?

The lottery is a game of chance where players select numbers in hopes of matching the winning numbers and claiming a monetary prize. Lotteries are operated by governments or authorized organizations in many countries around the world. They generate significant revenue that is often earmarked for specific public programs or services. However, lotteries have also been criticized as an exploitative form of gambling that disproportionately targets lower-income individuals. This article will examine the arguments for and against state-sponsored lotteries, their effectiveness in generating funds, and whether the social costs outweigh the benefits.

What is a lottery?

A lottery is a game of chance where players pay to select numbers, symbols, or cards, with the goal of matching certain numbers or symbols that are later randomly drawn. Prizes are awarded to those who match some or all of the winning numbers. Lotteries can have different prize structures, such as giving a large jackpot prize to the person who matches all the numbers drawn, smaller prizes to those who match some of the numbers, and consolation prizes to those who match only a few numbers. Lotteries may be run by national or regional governments, charitable organizations, or private companies licensed by governments. Participation is voluntary. Most lotteries draw numbers once or twice per week.

History of lotteries

Lotteries have a long history, dating back hundreds of years. Some of the earliest records of lotteries come from China during the Han Dynasty from 205 to 187 BCE. These lotteries helped fund major government projects like the Great Wall of China.

In Europe, lotteries funded towns, helped rebuild cities after fires and wars, and supported universities like Harvard and Yale. Early American colonies used lotteries to raise money for supplies, roads, schools, and churches.

Modern government-run lotteries in the United States started in the mid-20th century as a way to generate revenue without raising taxes. New Hampshire authorized the first modern state lottery in 1963. Other states soon followed with their own lotteries in the subsequent decades.

Today, 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands run government-operated lotteries. These lotteries offer games like Powerball and Mega Millions that pool ticket sales across participating states to offer huge jackpots.

Why do governments run lotteries?

Governments often justify lotteries by claiming they provide the following benefits:

Raise revenue

One of the main reasons governments authorize lotteries is to raise money without having to increase broad-based taxes like income or sales tax. Lotteries are a way to increase government revenue through voluntary transactions. People who choose to play lotteries fund programs and services that benefit the general public.

Fund specific causes

Money raised through lottery ticket sales is often earmarked for particular programs and public goods. Common lottery beneficiaries include education, environmental conservation, public pension funds, cultural institutions, and recreational facilities.

For example, lotteries might help fund:

  • Public education
  • College scholarships
  • Construction of schools
  • Teacher salaries
  • School supplies
  • State parks
  • Wildlife conservation
  • Public pension plans
  • Professional sports arenas
  • Museums and theaters

Hypothecating, or dedicating, lottery revenues to popular causes makes lotteries more politically palatable.

Provide entertainment

Lotteries allow people to purchase a chance to dream about winning big jackpots. This generates excitement and fun for players. People are willing to spend a small amount on lottery tickets for the excitement of a potential large payout and the imagination of how they would spend winnings.

Arguments against state-run lotteries

While governments promote lotteries as an innocuous way to raise funds for good causes without tax hikes, critics make the following arguments against state-run lottery programs:

Lotteries are regressive

Although buying lottery tickets is voluntary, critics argue lotteries impose a regressive tax burden. Regressive taxes take up a larger percentage of lower-income earners’ paychecks than higher earners’ paychecks. While wealthier lottery players may spend a trivial amount on tickets for entertainment, poor players spend a higher portion of their limited incomes, hoping for the promise of life-changing winnings.

Studies find lower-income Americans spend a larger share of their earnings on lottery tickets than wealthier Americans. Lotteries end up functioning like a tax on the poor rather than a source of entertainment for those who can afford it.

Lotteries can fuel unhealthy gambling

Critics caution that state-run lotteries can encourage problematic gambling. Lotteries normalize and legitimize gambling. Having lottery games frequently publicized and readily accessible at gas stations and grocery stores popularizes the perception of gambling as harmless entertainment. This may encourage more risky gambling behaviors.

People who develop gambling addictions often start with activities like lottery tickets that seem harmless. Offering lottery games may act as a gateway to more high-risk gambling activities.

Lotteries don’t always fund public priorities

There are concerns that lottery revenue does not always go to the best public uses. Lottery proceeds may fund special interests rather than the most pressing public needs.

For example, a state may devote lottery revenues to professional sports stadiums instead of addressing critical infrastructure needs. Hypothecating funds can restrict spending flexibility for changing public priorities.

Lotteries are ineffective at generating substantial revenue

Lottery revenue is a relatively small portion of total government funds. One estimate found that over a 30-year period, state lotteries generated less than 1% of total government revenue for the 50 U.S. states.

While lottery revenues sound impressive as large absolute dollar amounts, they pale in comparison to total state budgets. Lotteries may create political issues if there are shortfalls in their projected revenues that lead to less funding for dedicated causes.

Private companies gain excessive profits

Most government-run lotteries outsource operations like ticket sales and marketing to private companies. Critics argue these private industry partners gain an excessive share of lottery profits.

In some cases, private lottery vendors have manipulated games to increase revenues without returning a fair share of profits back to the public funds lotteries are meant to benefit.

Lotteries encourage irresponsible spending

Lotteries have been criticized for exploiting human psychology to encourage irresponsible spending. Features like allowing credit card lottery ticket purchases and providing instant scratch-off games promote impulsive spending.

Research finds that low-income households may neglect basic needs like food and rent to spend that money on lottery tickets. Easy access to lotteries can worsen the effects of gambling addiction.

Assessing the social costs and benefits of lotteries

Determining whether state lotteries are socially beneficial involves weighing several factors:

Potential benefits Potential costs
  • Raise revenue without broad-based tax increases
  • Fund public programs like education and pensions
  • Provide entertainment for players
  • Regressive – disproportionate spending by low-income groups
  • Can encourage problematic gambling
  • May divert funds from more pressing needs
  • Generate minimal revenue compared to state budgets
  • Excessive profits to private vendors
  • Encourage irresponsible spending on games of chance

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. Voters and policymakers have to evaluate tradeoffs between using lottery revenue for public services and the risks of exacerbating problem gambling behaviors.

Lottery revenue data

The amount of revenue that state lotteries generate can give a sense of their fiscal impact. The table below shows total lottery revenue and revenue per capita for selected states in fiscal year 2020:

State Total Revenue Per Capita Revenue
New York $3.3 billion $170
Texas $6.2 billion $215
Georgia $1.23 billion $115
Oregon $734 million $174

In fiscal year 2020, Georgia generated over $1.2 billion in lottery revenue. On a per capita basis, Oregon residents spent the most on lottery games at $174 per person.

Lottery spending by income level

Surveys find that lower-income Americans spend more on lottery tickets as a percentage of their overall income:

Income Level Average Annual Lottery Spending
Under $10,000 $597 (1.6% of income)
$10,000-$24,999 $701 (1.3% of income)
$50,000-$99,999 $633 (0.5% of income)

Those earning under $10,000 spent 1.6% of their income on lottery tickets on average. In contrast, those earning $50,000-99,999 spent around 0.5% of their income on lotteries.

Problem gambling rates

Opponents argue easy access to state lotteries may enable problem gambling. Survey data provides estimates of compulsive gambling rates in US states:

State Problem Gambling Rate
California 0.8%
Texas 0.6%
New York 2.2%
Georgia 1.7%

New York had the highest rate at 2.2% of adults exhibiting problem gambling behaviors. Texas had one of the lower rates at 0.6%. More research is needed to determine if state lotteries contribute to problem gambling.


There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the lottery debate. Lotteries raise revenues that allow states to fund public services without raising broad-based taxes. However, they have the downsides of being regressive, potentially exacerbating problem gambling, and directing revenues to causes that may not represent the best public priorities. There are also concerns around excessive profits for private lottery vendors.

Ultimately, voters have to assess their own values and priorities to determine if lotteries are a fair way to fund public programs. Policymakers have to weigh if the public service benefits outweigh the risks of regressivity and problem gambling.

The debate involves both quantitative factors, like the revenue statistics and demographic spending patterns highlighted above, and moral considerations around fairness and the role of government-backed gambling. Elected officials must strike a balance representing the preferences of their constituents. If current lottery systems are deemed inadequate, alternatives like dedicated taxes on wealthier earners could achieve funding aims without the risks associated with state-run lotteries.