The State Lottery and Its Critics

In America today, the state lottery has become one of the most popular forms of gambling, with Americans spending an estimated $100 billion a year on tickets. Critics fault lawmakers for relying on high-risk gambling, conning hapless players and ignoring the social costs, but such complaints fall on deaf ears. State lotteries provide substantial revenue for politicians who prefer not to raise taxes, and the chance of winning big keeps players hooked.

Unlike private casinos, lotteries are legal gambling establishments with the blessing of state regulators and government officials. While the games are ostensibly designed to raise money for things like education, research shows that a majority of proceeds are spent on prizes and advertising. This leaves a tiny percentage that states can use for other purposes, such as road and park maintenance.

Lottery critics come from both sides of the political spectrum and all walks of life, but they cite two key issues: the morality of funding public services through gambling, and how much state governments stand to gain from lottery revenues. Those who oppose the lottery point out that the earmarking of lottery funds to specific programs (like education) merely allows the legislature to reduce by the same amount the appropriations it would otherwise have allotted to those purposes from the general fund.

Others question the impact that lottery marketing has on children, arguing that retailers such as convenience stores that promote the games to families should be held accountable for doing so. They also question the role of state regulators, noting that lottery officials often respond to directives from state officials that contain contradictory goals.