The advent of government-organized gambling, in the form of state lotteries, is one of our age’s most unnoticed social transformations. Before 1964, America had no such lotteries. Today, only five states don’t run their own, and most others permit interstate games such as Powerball, which jack up prizes to extravagant levels. Lottery participation has skyrocketed. Overall revenues total some $80 billion; New York is the state leader, with $10 billion in ticket sales. The spread of lotteries has played a leading role in the normalization of gambling, once considered a vice akin to drug use or prostitution — and lottery sales are boosted by publicly funded advertising campaigns that prey on the weakness of gambling addicts while encouraging non-gamblers to get involved, too.
Many states use lotteries to help fill their coffers. A 2016 Rockefeller Institute of Government study found that, on average, state lotteries provide 2 percent of overall state revenues. In New York, it’s 2.9 percent; in South Dakota, Oregon, and Georgia, the share exceeds 5 percent.
Since reliance on gambling as a source of government revenue is bipartisan, urging lotteries’ outright abolition is politically unpromising. Individual lottery participation, however, is not nearly so entrenched. States have long varied the types of games they offer in order to maintain interest, and they spend more than $600 million on advertising, especially on television. As the National Council on State Legislatures puts it, “States have been looking to boost awareness of games and increase opportunities to play by adding to advertising budgets and expanding lottery ticket retail locations … developing a sound marketing strategy seems to be key.” The poor may believe that lottery dreams can come true, but they apparently need regular reminders.
It’s common for states to frame lotteries as being for a good cause — for public education, say. The claim is meaningless, though: All state money is fungible. The lottery proceeds go into the state’s general fund; one could just as easily say that they’re used to pay down interest on debt.
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