Lottery Revenue – A Tax on the Stubborn?


Lotteries are a form of gambling in which people pay a small amount for the chance to win a prize, usually money. Despite their infamous reputation as addictive forms of gambling, they are often a good way to raise money for a cause. Some states have even begun using them to fill budget gaps, and some have gotten creative in how they use the funds.

Many critics argue that the lottery amounts to a tax on the stupid, implying that players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win and don’t care about the odds. But the argument misses a key point: As with most commercial products, lottery sales are sensitive to economic conditions. According to Cohen, “lottery revenue climbs when incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates increase.” Moreover, as with all advertising, lottery marketing is heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

The earliest known lotteries date back to the Roman Empire, where they were used as a party game during Saturnalia festivities and distributed among guests who drank expensive wine. Guests would hold tickets and spin the wheel of fortune to see who would receive a gift, which was typically a fancy item like dinnerware. During the Middle Ages, medieval guilds and city councils organized lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes. Lottery prizes included cash, goods, or land.

During the modern era, state governments began using the lottery to balance their budgets, and by the mid-twentieth century, most states had legalized the practice. In 1964, New Hampshire became the first state to approve a state-run lottery, and the popularity of the game quickly spread across the nation. Many state leaders, eager to address fiscal crises without enraging an anti-tax electorate, hailed the lottery as a painless alternative to higher taxes.

As the number of lottery winners grew, the industry realized that it could rely on super-sized jackpots to attract customers. Large prizes also earned the games a windfall of free publicity on news sites and TV shows.

But even with huge jackpots, most lottery participants lose money over time. The average ticket costs around $2, and the chance of winning the jackpot is about 1%. So while a millionaire might be happy to buy a house with his jackpot, most people wouldn’t want to spend that much of their life savings on a ticket.

The skeptics were right: The vast majority of the money outside your winnings is returned to participating states, and individual states get creative in how they use it. One common approach is to dedicate a percentage of the proceeds to programs for education, elder care, or other social services. Other states use it to fund support centers for problem gamblers, while some use it to enhance their general fund. This allows them to respond to budget shortfalls and fund projects like roadwork or bridge repairs more quickly. In addition, some state lotteries use their profits to fund programs for people struggling with addiction or recovery.