The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a game of chance operated by a state government to raise money for public projects. States establish the rules of the games by statute and govern the agencies that administer them. State lawmakers typically create a lottery board and a lottery director to oversee operations. In addition, the laws typically specify details of the game—such as how long winners have to claim their prize after a relevant drawing, what documentation must be presented by winning ticket holders to win, and how the state will pay the winner.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the first American lotteries were designed to fund public works and other civic initiatives. Famous founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held lotteries to retire debts and buy Philadelphia’s first cannons. By the early nineteenth century, lotteries had expanded throughout the east and became a key part of America’s growing banking and taxation systems.

Advocates of lotteries argue that they offer a better alternative to raising taxes because citizens can choose whether to play or not, while tax revenue is not an option. But critics of the idea point out that lotteries can have a high administrative overhead, and fickle players may stray into competing states or satisfy gambling urges at casinos, so revenues are less reliable than tax revenue.

Moreover, research shows that lottery money is regressive: low-income Americans spend more on tickets than do higher-income citizens. And because of the disproportionate amount of state-sponsored advertising, many low-income communities see lotteries as a quick route to wealth—an image that’s hardly credible when you consider the extremely low odds of winning.