The Official Lottery Isn’t Doing Anything Good

The official lottery is a big business, with fifty percent of Americans buying at least one ticket each year. It’s a popular activity and some say it helps raise money for good causes. But the truth is that it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to state governments—it brings in only 1 to 2 percent of their overall revenue. And the people who play it are disproportionately poorer, less educated, nonwhite and male.

States are not above leveraging lotteries for their own benefit. But that’s not the same thing as “doing good.” Rather, it’s a matter of using state power to lure and trap a certain population of gamblers. In order to do that, they have to convince the public that state-run lotteries are a good idea. This is done by telling voters that the lottery is helping a certain government service, and by creating ads that suggest the game is not gambling at all but, for instance, an excellent way to help kids.

The first legalized lotteries were sold as budgetary miracles. They were supposed to float most of a state’s expenses, so politicians wouldn’t have to ever think about raising taxes. But these projections were quickly disproved, and the lottery became just another line item on the state’s balance sheet. State officials and proponents, finding themselves unable to promote the game as a silver bullet, ginned up other strategies. They began to tell voters that the proceeds would pay for a particular government service, invariably education but sometimes veterans’ benefits or public parks.