The Official Lottery

The official lottery is the state-run game that provides prizes to players in exchange for money. State lotteries are commonplace throughout the United States and are a major source of revenue for many of the country’s government agencies. These agencies use the proceeds to fund things like education, public works, and health services.

When lotteries first appeared in the early 19th century, they were often frowned upon by moralists such as Voltaire and bishops who claimed that they exploited the poor. But they also offered a way for governments to generate revenues without the political risks of raising taxes and with minimal governmental oversight.

State governments were short on funds for civil defense, schools, and public works in the era of the American Revolution. And they were surrounded by voters with an aversion to taxation, making the lottery an attractive alternative.

In the past, lottery advocates argued that people who play the lotto are “taxed on their stupidity.” But this is an incorrect and misleading assertion. The amount of money spent on lotteries varies with economic trends; as Cohen notes, lottery sales increase when incomes fall and unemployment rises, and they are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income, black, or Latino.

Lottery commissions have moved away from this argument and now rely on two messages primarily. One is that the experience of playing a lottery is fun, and coded into this message is the idea that it’s a good thing to do because you’re helping the kids or whatever. But that’s an insufficient message, and it obscures the regressivity of lottery spending.