In a world of limited social mobility and rising inequality, the lottery offers a tantalizing promise of instant riches. It’s no wonder that so many people feel compelled to play. And for many of them, it’s not just about winning the big prize. It’s about finding their one, last, best chance to turn things around and get their life back on track.
Lottery has long been an important source of state revenue, enabling governments to provide a host of public services that would otherwise be unaffordable or impractical. Yet its evolution as a form of taxation has produced a series of concerns that, when taken together, raise serious questions about its legitimacy and impact. Some of these issues stem from the fact that lottery advertising focuses on promoting gambling behavior, which critics argue can lead to harmful consequences for poorer citizens and problems for problem gamblers. Other criticisms point to the fact that, as a form of gambling, it’s at cross-purposes with the state’s role in protecting the public welfare.
Historically, lottery adoptions have followed a strikingly similar pattern: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the operation (rather than licensing a private firm in return for a portion of profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by continual pressure to increase revenues, progressively expands the lottery in terms of its offerings and complexity.
A significant aspect of the expansion of the lottery has been driven by demand for newer, faster-growing games. As a result, the games on offer have diversified greatly in recent years to include everything from keno to video poker to the more traditional scratch-off tickets. This proliferation of games has led to a significant increase in the amount of money that can be won.
In addition, a large portion of state lottery proceeds is earmarked for a particular purpose, such as public education. However, critics point out that earmarking the proceeds simply allows the legislature to reduce by the same amount the appropriations it would have had to allot from the general fund. This approach, they argue, undermines the independence of the lottery’s decision-making process.
The second major issue that lottery critics raise concerns that the state, in attempting to maximize lottery revenue, is at cross-purposes with its responsibility for the general welfare. Lottery officials, they argue, rely on the message that even if you lose, buying a ticket is a “civic duty” to help the state. But, as noted above, the percentage of lottery revenues that actually benefit state programs is a small fraction of the total amount that the states take in.
For those who do win, there is still the nagging question of whether the money is really all that it’s cracked up to be. Some lottery winners complain that the lump sum they receive is smaller than the advertised jackpot, even after income taxes and withholdings have been applied.