Should We Have a Lottery?
Lottery is the largest form of gambling in America. In 2021, Americans spent upward of $100 billion on tickets, making it a big business that benefits state governments. But it’s worth asking whether that’s a good deal for taxpayers. Lottery has a number of issues that go beyond just how much people spend. It’s regressive, encouraging low-income households to gamble even more of their incomes away. And it dangles the promise of instant riches, which is particularly appealing in an era of inequality and limited social mobility.
The practice of drawing numbers to determine ownership of property or other rewards dates back to ancient times. In the Old Testament, God instructed Moses to divide land among Israelites by lottery; the Roman emperors used lotteries during Saturnalian feasts. In the 18th century, American colonies held lotteries to finance road construction and aid their poorest citizens. Benjamin Franklin even organized a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.
But in the postwar era, states began to see lotteries as a way to get money for everything from prisons and schools to highways and parks. This was a period in which voters wanted states to do more and politicians looked at lotteries as a way to get tax revenue without raising taxes on the middle class or working classes.
Since then, there’s been a shift in the conversation about lotteries. Instead of arguing about how much they should be spending, state officials focus on how many people play and how much they can generate in tax revenue. And that’s the main reason for the current expansion of lotteries into online games like keno and video poker.
While the expansion of the game has brought a new level of convenience, it’s also led to concerns about the growing number of young adults who have no jobs and can’t afford to pay rent or buy food. In addition, the growth of online gaming has given rise to a new form of addiction: compulsive gambling. And while the vast majority of lottery players are not compulsive, the game still has a big impact on those who are.
There’s no one right answer to the question of whether or not we should have lotteries, but it’s important that we examine the costs and benefits before expanding them further. Especially now that the economy is slowing and states need to cut their budgets, we should make sure that what we’re getting out of the lottery is worth the money that’s going into it.