The Pros and Cons of the Official Lottery

More than thirty states run state lotteries, and they’re a big business, with Americans spending about $100 billion annually on tickets. But the lottery wasn’t always a popular game: Puritans in early America considered it “a door and window to worse sins.” In 1612, King James I chartered a private lottery to help finance ships to his Virginia colony, and public lotteries became common in the Low Countries and England by the fourteen-hundreds.

State lotteries are often promoted as a better alternative to raising taxes, and they can be quite effective at that: Few voters relish the idea of cutting back on state programs. But there’s an inherent problem with a lottery: States that do not offer one are likely to see gambling dollars flow into neighboring ones. When New Hampshire introduced the first modern lottery in 1964, for instance, it saw gambling money disappear into its neighboring states, which in turn funded their own state-run lotteries.

Moral arguments against the lottery are also abundant. Many critics argue that a lottery is nothing more than a form of taxation, since it takes money from those least able to afford it. Others cite research showing that lottery sales increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates climb. And they say that advertising for the games is most heavily marketed in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

Despite these arguments, the lottery isn’t going away. State legislatures are continuing to create lotteries and promote them as a means of helping those in need. Some even are considering legalizing a form of private lottery, in which winnings are paid out to winners directly rather than to the state.