The Official Lottery

An official lottery is a state-run game in which players pay for tickets that include numbers or symbols, and prizes are awarded to those who match the winning combination. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century; they raised money for town fortifications and to help the poor, as well as other purposes. The modern incarnation of the lottery is a major source of revenue for many states, despite criticism that it is a form of taxation and that lower-income households spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on lottery tickets.

In the United States, lottery revenues have amounted to a little over $502 billion between 1964 and 2019; however, they are a tiny fraction of state governments’ total budgets, and most of that money is spent on the cost of administrating the lottery itself rather than paying out prizes. In fact, the lottery has become one of the most inefficient ways for states to collect taxes. As Cohen notes, lottery sales spike when the economy falters and when unemployment or poverty rates rise; in addition, advertising for the lottery is heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and Black.

Defenders of the lottery have tried to counter such charges by arguing that it is a harmless, fun activity and by claiming that playing the lottery does not require any substantial skills or knowledge. However, such claims rely on the message that the lottery is just a game and obscure the fact that it is an extremely inefficient way for states to raise taxes. They also obscure the regressivity of lottery spending, as lower-income people are more likely to play.