Does the Lottery Really Benefit the State?

A lottery is a gambling game in which people buy tickets with numbers on them. A drawing is then held to determine the winners, with people whose numbers match winning combinations getting prize money. Some state governments offer lotteries, while others don’t. In the latter cases, the private sector takes on the job of selling the tickets. Lotteries are a popular form of gambling, with Americans spending more than $100 billion on them every year. They’re also a major source of revenue for state government. But critics charge that they’re not the benign boon that supporters claim. They often misrepresent the odds of winning, inflate the value of the prize money (lottery jackpot prizes are usually paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value), and so forth. They also tend to disproportionately affect lower-income groups.

In a country where income inequality and the social safety net are on the rise, many people have been drawn to the promise of instant riches that the lottery dangles in front of them. Billboards along the highway boasting huge jackpots are an effective lure, and people from all walks of life play them. The big question is whether all that play really benefits the state and is worth the cost to society of promoting this type of behavior.

The answer to that is complex, and it comes down to two messages that lottery commissions are trying to convey. One is that a ticket bought at the gas station doesn’t just buy you a chance to win; it’s actually a civic duty to support the state and help the children. That might sound rosy, but it ignores how much money people lose in the process and just how small the percentage of total state revenues that lotteries raise are.

It also obscures the fact that there are no guarantees, no matter how much you spend on a ticket. The fact that the winner is chosen by a random process—which means anyone can win if they’re lucky enough—also obscures the reality that a lot of people will lose their hard-earned money.

Moreover, despite its reputation as a harmless, fun activity, the lottery is actually a dangerous tool for raising money for state governments. It’s an expensive, unreliable revenue-raiser that skirts the need to increase taxes and instead preys on poor people’s illusory hopes. This is not the kind of thing we should be encouraging. Unless we want to continue to live in a country where the rich get richer and the middle class and working class shrink. It’s time to change the narrative on this issue.