The Political Impact of the Lottery

The lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the United States, with people spending about $100 billion a year on tickets. Its popularity and widespread acceptance have raised a number of questions about its impact, including whether it encourages problem gambling and has other negative effects on the public welfare. Despite these concerns, it is unlikely that state governments will abandon the lottery anytime soon.

Lottery supporters argue that its proceeds are a source of “painless” revenue, as players voluntarily spend money on tickets (as opposed to taxes imposed on the general population). This argument is particularly attractive in times of economic stress, when state governments can point to the lottery’s benefits to reassure citizens that government services will be maintained. However, this type of argument fails to take into account the broader social costs associated with lottery revenues.

Moreover, a state’s decision to adopt a lottery has little relationship to its objective fiscal health, as it can attract broad public support even in good economic times. This is partly because lotteries tend to create large, specific constituencies that can be used as sources of political support. These groups include convenience store operators (who are the main vendors for lottery tickets); suppliers (whose employees often work as lottery agents and make heavy contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (in those states where some lottery profits are earmarked for education) and, of course, state legislators who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue.