The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a government-sponsored game of chance in which a person can win a cash prize in exchange for something of lesser value. State governments typically run the games, and winners are chosen by drawing lots. The practice originated in ancient China, and the earliest known examples are keno slips from the Chinese Han Dynasty (205–187 BC). State-sponsored lotteries exist today in most countries, including the United States, where the federal government oversees the multistate Powerball lottery. In the US, a variety of state-run lotteries exist, and each has its own rules and regulations.

Proponents of state-sponsored lotteries argue that they are a good alternative to raising taxes. They frequently cast their cause as a way to avoid the backlash that would result from cutting cherished state programs and services in a time of fiscal crisis, when many Americans are wary of paying any type of mandatory tax. They also contend that unlike paying income, property, or sales taxes, purchasing lottery tickets is a choice.

But these arguments are misguided. Lottery money ends up being a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall state budgets, by some estimates making up just 1 or 2 percent of total revenue. And while the public has always loved to gamble, state-sponsored lotteries are uniquely prone to being exploited by corrupt operators who are eager to pocket lottery profits for themselves.

More troubling is the fact that lottery advertising is often targeted to low-income communities, leading residents in these neighborhoods to believe that winning the lottery is a fast and easy way to accumulate wealth. These advertisements exacerbate already entrenched inequalities, as studies show that low-income people spend far more of their money on instant scratch-offs than do wealthy gamblers. The result is that lower-income communities tend to lose more money in the long run than do wealthier ones.

State lawmakers are right to be concerned that lottery proceeds could end up being used by crooked operators or to fund other gambling activities, but they are wrong to think that the answer is to promote more of them. Instead, they should seek other ways to raise needed funds.

The best option is to limit lottery advertising, but even that is not enough to meet current funding needs in some states. To ensure that lottery proceeds are spent as intended, the state should establish a commission to oversee and enforce its lottery laws. The commission should include members who are experts on problem gambling and have a deep understanding of the social problems associated with it. It should also require that lottery vendors submit annual reports on the status of their business. The commission should also publish these reports on its website. In addition, it should develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the number of gambling addictions by helping people find treatment and by encouraging responsible play. This is a critical issue that deserves the attention of lawmakers across the country.