Should States Have an Official Lottery?

For most people who play the lottery, it’s not just a game. It’s a way of escaping the gloom and doom that they see all around them, or at least a small sliver of hope that they will be the one to win the big jackpot. The question is whether state governments should be in the business of promoting such an addictive vice, given that lotteries generate such a tiny portion of state budget revenue.

The author of this article, Jonathan Cohen, argues that the modern lottery is not just a gambling game but “a machine for transferring wealth and power among Americans—often disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups.” Cohen points out that a number of people who buy tickets, particularly in low-income communities, believe they are getting a ticket to the American dream. “In a world where jobs and incomes are falling, a quick fix through the lottery can seem like an attractive option,” he writes.

When lottery proponents pushed for legalized gambling in the nineteenth century, they were selling a fantasy that the games would fill state coffers without raising taxes or cutting services. This claim, which led state after state to approve lotteries, was quickly discredited. The first legalized lotteries brought in only a small fraction of the income that their advocates had imagined, and even today, they raise no more than two per cent of state budgets. Moreover, states can do just as well, or better, through other ways of collecting money from those who wish to gamble—for example, by taxing the profits of casinos, sports betting, horse races, and financial markets.