The Ubiquity of the State Lottery

The state lottery is a remarkably common feature of American life, with 45 states running one. The underlying purpose is to raise revenue, though the ways that governments distribute the proceeds vary widely. Most states, for example, earmark the profits to education; others give them to general funds. Still others give them to specific economic development projects or sports stadium authorities. Some, like Louisiana, require all lottery tickets to be printed with a toll-free gambler’s assistance hotline number. And some, such as New Jersey, have enacted a range of provisions designed to help problem gamblers.

The ubiquity of the state lottery has created many overlapping constituencies, including convenience store operators (who typically carry lotto merchandise); suppliers to the industry (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by these folks are regularly reported); teachers (in states where revenues are earmarked for education;) and state legislators (who quickly grow accustomed to having extra cash at their disposal). Aside from a few big winners, there’s not much evidence that lotteries actually improve educational performance.

But what is clear is that, in an era of fierce anti-tax sentiment, government at every level has become reliant on “painless” lottery revenues and that pressures are always there to increase them. Some critics have also argued that the lottery’s regressive nature takes a disproportionate toll on low-income citizens.