In an era when many state governments are grappling with budget crises and looking for ways to raise revenue without upsetting their anti-tax voters, the lottery emerged as an attractive option. Its advocates argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so why not let them choose how much money they wanted to risk on the chance of winning big. The idea, says Cohen, sounded good to voters and politicians alike, and it was a winner for the lottery companies that sprung up to manage the games.
The vast majority of lottery proceeds go to fund statewide educational systems, including universities and K-12 schools, but the system also helps a wide range of other state-sponsored programs, from breast cancer research to veterans’ benefits and special Olympics. In addition, some states allow players to earmark their prize for specific purposes. For example, the lottery in Illinois funds special education, while Indiana’s surplus benefits educators and first responders.
Lottery players like Standifer contribute about $29 billion annually to the state coffers, but the only consistent winners are the private businesses that run the lotteries, the convenience stores that sell them, and advertising and media companies. State officials keep just a quarter of the total. The rest goes to a variety of other entities, including the lottery’s international vendors, the state-licensed retailers, and lottery administrators and employees. The poor are disproportionately less likely to play, and state laws allow lottery prizes to be garnished to pay debts and child support.