The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a state-controlled gambling game that offers a chance to win a prize, often in the form of money or goods. Lotteries are a popular source of revenue for many governments, and they can be run in a variety of ways, from scratch-off tickets to video lottery terminals. In the United States, a variety of state and private organizations operate lotteries, and each has its own rules for operation and prize payouts. In addition to state laws, there are also federal regulations governing lottery sales and advertising.

In the early years of modern state-run lotteries, a wave of anti-lottery protests swept across the country. Critics questioned the ethics of funding public services through gambling and the amount of money that state governments actually stood to gain. Among the most vociferous opponents were devout Protestants, who viewed government-sanctioned lotteries as morally unconscionable. They were largely ignored, however, as lottery advocates launched a series of high-profile campaigns that portrayed the games as financial miracles, claiming that state lottery proceeds would cover the cost of schools and other public services without raising taxes.

The success of these campaigns was helped by the nation’s growing distaste for taxation. As state governments searched for solutions to their budgetary crises that would not enrage an increasingly resentful electorate, the appeal of the lottery proved irresistible. By the late twentieth century, a remarkable number of states had adopted lotteries.

Lottery critics still dangle the prospect of instant riches in front of unsuspecting consumers, but they have shifted their arguments to focus on what they describe as a fundamentally regressive product. They argue that the vast majority of lottery proceeds are won by the wealthy and that lottery advertisements disproportionately target poor, Black, or Latino neighborhoods. They also point to evidence that lottery sales increase when incomes fall or unemployment rises, and that the products are most heavily promoted in those communities.

In response to these criticisms, lotteries have tried to refocus their message. Instead of stressing that playing the lottery is a fun and exciting experience, they now emphasize that it is a civic duty to play, and that the money spent on tickets is helping children or other worthy causes. They have also begun to stress that the money that is collected through the lottery is only a small fraction of overall state revenues, and that this percentage has been steadily declining over time.

Whether or not this is the best way to raise money for the state is an open question, but it appears to be working. Between 1964 and 2019, state-run lotteries raised about $502 billion. On its face, that sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only about 1 to 2 percent of actual state revenue. That’s a tiny sum, and a tiny percentage of what states spend on things like education and prisons. Moreover, the money that’s collected through the lottery is inefficiently distributed and is often spent on administrative expenses, rather than on the programs it’s supposed to support.