The Official Lottery Shouldn’t Exist in the United States

The official lottery is a game of chance wherein numbers are drawn for prizes. It’s a popular form of gambling that has been used in many countries since the fourteenth century. State lotteries are regulated by federal and state laws, which govern such things as how the games operate and how they are promoted; what percentage of the proceeds goes to each type of prize; and whether or not people can play across state lines.

In the nineteen-sixties, Cohen argues, growing awareness of the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. As population growth and inflation accelerated, it became harder and harder for state governments to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. And, as Cohen shows, in the late-twentieth century, Americans were deeply averse to both options.

The result was a surge in the popularity of state lotteries. Today, lottery proceeds make up, on average, about one per cent of state revenues. But that small difference is hiding a huge problem. Because of the way they are promoted and conducted, state lotteries contribute to inequality by taking a disproportionate share of income from low-income citizens. The result, according to a series of cross-sectional studies, is that states with lotteries have higher levels of income inequality than states without them. Using a more comprehensive approach, Cohen, a careful and fair collector of facts, concludes that state lotteries “should not exist in the modern United States.” (This is an abridged version of an article first published on September 29, 2013)