The Official Lottery

The official lottery is the procedure for distributing something (usually money or prizes) among a group of people by lot, or by chance. The term is applied also to commercial promotions in which property or services are given away to consumers on the condition that payment be made, and the selection of members of a jury by random procedure. In modern use, however, the word has come to refer especially to a state-run gambling game in which payment of a small sum is required for the chance to win a much larger prize. Such games are often referred to as the “common lottery” or the “states’ lotteries.”

The first modern state lotteries grew out of the tax revolt that swept America in the late-twentieth century, with voters believing that a lottery would allow states to provide their services without increasing taxes on lower-income households. That logic, Cohen writes, was flawed, as was the belief that the proceeds from a lottery could float an entire state budget.

As the popularity of the lottery grew, its advocates began to reframe their arguments, saying that it could cover just a line item—often education but occasionally elder care, public parks or aid for veterans. This approach was more persuasive but still misleading. It inflated the amount of money that state governments could actually raise through gambling, and it obfuscated the fact that the money came from low-income citizens.

Today, state lotteries bring in, on average, about one percent of a state’s revenue each year. That money matters, but it comes at a cost. In addition to making it harder for politicians to pass needed tax increases, the regressive nature of the lottery means that lower-income households pay a much greater share of their incomes on tickets than wealthier ones do.