Should States Have an Official Lottery?

A lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase chances of winning prizes by chance. Prizes may consist of cash, goods, or services. Modern lotteries are primarily state-controlled, with proceeds going to public education and infrastructure, but the term “lottery” can also be used for other kinds of random distribution, such as military conscription or commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure.

For legislators seeking a way to maintain their budgets without hiking taxes—which would invariably anger the voters—the lottery seemed to offer a silver bullet. Cohen writes that the lottery was hailed as a “budgetary miracle, the chance for states to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.”

Lottery proceeds were used for all or part of the financing of projects such as building the British Museum and repairing bridges, and of the erection of the Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, and other public buildings in the American colonies. Lotteries were abused, however, by fraudsters who cheated the winners and defrauded the promoters, and in 1826 Congress banned their operation, leaving only the infamous Louisiana State Lottery Company to run a national game until 1890.

Proponents of legalizing the lottery have shifted tactics in recent years, claiming that proceeds will cover a single line item in the state’s budget, typically one deemed popular and nonpartisan—such as education, elder care, or aid to veterans. But they continue to ignore the fact that poor people are paying into a system that disproportionately benefits middle-class and upper-class families that can afford to buy tickets.