The Official Lottery Is a Tax on Citizens

There’s a lot going on here: an inextricable human impulse to gamble, combined with an enduring meritocratic belief that we’re all going to get rich someday. The official lottery, though, doesn’t play by the same rules as other gambling games. It doesn’t care if you’re black, white, Mexican, Chinese, fat or skinny. The odds of winning make all the difference, and your past doesn’t count for a thing.

In fact, the most significant part of a state lottery’s message is that you should feel good about yourself because you’re doing something for the state, and if you play enough, eventually you’ll win. That may sound like a noble cause, but it’s also deceptive. When it comes to raising money for a state, it turns out that the lottery is just a really inefficient tax on citizens. Between 1964 and 2019, it raised $502 billion, which sounds great until you consider that it was only about 1 to 2 percent of total state revenue during that period.

Worse, lotteries create inequities by disproportionately benefiting people who live far away from the lottery retailers, according to research by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. It found that lottery retailers are disproportionately located in low-income communities. This means that poor people are “collateral damage in the effort to raise money for what legislators feel are very good purposes — public safety, local schools,” Bernal says. And even when they do win, the prizes are rarely large.