Lottery Politics

A lottery is a game in which participants pay for tickets and try to match a set of numbers drawn by a machine. The prizes can range from a modest cash amount to large sums of money, property, and services. Lotteries are legal in most states, and the proceeds are usually distributed to state governments for a variety of purposes. Lottery advocates often claim that the games serve as a painless form of taxation.

State lotteries typically begin with a legislative monopoly; establish a public agency or private corporation to run the games; begin operations with a relatively small number of relatively simple games; and gradually expand their game offerings as revenue pressures mount. This expansion typically involves adding new categories of games as well as offering larger or more frequent prizes.

Lotteries have a very wide scope of specific constituencies that are drawn from convenience store operators (lottery sales are generally high at these locations); suppliers (heavy contributions to supplier political action committees and/or lobbying are reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the added income); and, perhaps most importantly, low-income neighborhoods (where participation in lotteries is disproportionately higher than in other parts of the country).

One of the major messages that lottery promoters convey is that playing the lottery is a civic duty. This argument is particularly effective during times of economic stress, when state government budgets are being stretched and there are concerns that tax increases or cuts to important public programs will be needed. It is noteworthy, however, that the popularity of lotteries is independent of state government’s actual financial health.