Lottery Fundraising


Lottery is a popular way for governments to raise money by drawing numbers and awarding prizes. Unlike most forms of gambling, lottery proceeds are generally tax-deductible, which makes them attractive to state governments seeking to expand their social safety nets in times of economic stress without the need to increase taxes or cut popular programs. Lottery advocates argue that these revenues are a form of “volunteer” taxation, and that they are especially beneficial to low-income people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to invest in their own futures. Critics charge that lottery advertising is often deceptive, presenting misleading information about the odds of winning the prize, inflating the value of money won (lotto jackpots are usually paid in annuity payments over decades, with inflation and income taxes dramatically eroding their current value); and inciting compulsive behaviors, including gambling addiction.

The history of lotteries dates back to the early 1500s in Europe, when private citizens organized drawings to raise money for town wall construction and charitable purposes. Public lotteries were introduced in the 16th century, and by the 17th century they had become common in England, France, and the United States. They also were widely used in the colonies as a means of raising funds for public projects, and by the 1780s there were more than 50 state-sponsored lotteries.

Although critics of lottery funding cite concerns about the fairness and integrity of the process, there is also little doubt that it has proven to be an effective way to fund public projects. The large number of people who play regularly, the disproportionate concentrations of players in lower-income groups, and the ability of lotteries to generate revenue that is earmarked for specific public purposes have all contributed to their success. Indeed, since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, no state has abolished its lottery.

Lotteries are a popular source of funds for many public projects and have gained wide support from all segments of the public, from convenience store owners (who are usually the primary vendors) to schoolteachers (in those states in which lottery proceeds are earmarked for education), who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue that they receive. The popularity of lotteries has even prompted some political leaders to call for national legalization of the games.

However, it is important to understand that the state’s financial health does not depend on the popularity of the lottery. Lotteries are not a substitute for the normal fiscal management of state governments, and they can create serious distortions in the economy by encouraging people to spend more than they can afford on tickets that will not pay off. Moreover, they are inefficient: for every dollar spent on a ticket, an additional dollar is lost to the economy in taxes and other costs associated with lottery participation. A more sustainable approach would be to shift from the lottery model to a system in which players are required to contribute a percentage of their income to the state, as is currently the case for some types of employee compensation.