The Problem With State Lottery Programs

For more than half a century, state lotteries have been a popular way for people to gamble. They are a fixture of the American landscape, and state officials promote them as a way to raise revenue without raising taxes. And, indeed, they do raise money — $502 billion between 1964 and 2019. But that’s a drop in the bucket for actual state governments, accounting for only 1 to 2 percent of total state revenue during that period. And those lottery dollars are collected in a very inefficient fashion.

Moreover, they are a form of redistribution that disproportionately benefits the wealthy, and they prey on vulnerable groups. In many cases, these are people who live in communities where social mobility is low and jobs scarce. These individuals are the people who are most likely to buy lottery tickets. And, as a result, they are the ones who are most likely to lose.

It’s hard to argue with the inextricable human impulse to play games of chance, but there is more going on here than just a desire for instant riches. The truth is that lottery marketers know what they are doing, and they do it deliberately. They dangle the promise of wealth for people who don’t stand much of a chance of getting ahead in a society with soaring inequality and limited upward mobility.