Public Benefits and the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling whereby people bet small sums of money in the hope of winning big prizes. In the United States, there are a number of different lotteries, each with its own rules and prize amounts. The most popular are the Powerball and Mega Millions, which have jackpots of millions of dollars. Many states have laws that regulate the lottery and protect players from unfair practices. The idea behind these laws is to ensure that the lottery is fair for everyone and not just a few big winners.

While the majority of lottery participants play for fun, a significant percentage believes that they can change their lives through the lottery. This is a dangerous belief, especially in an economic climate where the chances of winning are low. People who believe this may end up spending more than they can afford to lose.

A few decades ago, state officials began promoting the lottery as a new way to fund public services without burdening middle-class and working-class taxpayers. In the immediate post-World War II period, this arrangement made sense. But as state budgets ballooned in the 1970s and 1980s, that arrangement broke down. State governments needed more revenue, but the aversion to taxes among many voters had grown stronger. So, to keep their tax rates below the national average and lure gamblers, state officials promoted the lottery as a “respectable” source of revenue.

To do that, they had to change the game’s rules and reframe its purpose. Rather than argue that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they now claimed that it would fund a single line item—usually education, but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid to veterans. This reframement made legalization campaigns easy: A vote for the lottery was a vote for a specific public service.

Moreover, the lottery’s advertising campaign, like its operations, has to be run as a business. That means targeting specific constituencies: convenience store owners (who sell the tickets); lottery suppliers (whose large contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states in which ticket sales are earmarked for educational purposes); and, not least, the general public itself.

All of this raises two major questions: (1) is it a valid function for government to promote gambling and, if so, should that promotion be based on the specific message that it conveys?

The second question is particularly important because state lotteries have a tangled relationship with race. As historian David Cohen explains, in the early years of the modern era of state-run lotteries, black numbers players were a key constituency for legalization advocates who thought that a state lottery could help them overcome their fear of paying higher taxes than white voters. This was a flawed argument, but it offered a moral cover for approving a practice that might undermine the nation’s emerging civil rights movement.

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