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How the Lottery Is Raising Money For Public Education and Low-Income Communities


The lottery is a major fixture in American life, with people spending billions on tickets each year. States promote lotteries as a way to raise revenue, which they then use to pay for all sorts of things, including public education. But that kind of thinking glosses over how regressive the lottery is. Those who play are making choices that will disproportionately hurt low-income and working class communities.

Lottery is a game in which players purchase numbered tickets, and prizes are allocated by chance. The word comes from the Latin for ‘drawing lots’ and is related to the Old Testament command that Moses divide the land among the Israelites by lot, and the ancient Roman practice of giving away property or slaves by lottery during Saturnalian feasts.

The modern state lottery was pioneered by New Hampshire in 1964, and since then almost every state has followed suit. The patterns are strikingly similar: the state legislates a monopoly; establishes a public corporation to run the lottery; begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then grows to meet demand by adding more and more complex offerings.

As state lotteries become more established, they develop extensive, specific constituencies — convenience store owners (the typical vendors); lottery suppliers and their employees; teachers (lottery revenues are often earmarked for education); and state legislators who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue. But what’s really happening is that these state lotteries are being used to finance an increasingly large and unsustainable government.