Lottery Commissions and the Politics of Revenue Generation


A lottery is a game where people pay for tickets, select a group of numbers or let machines randomly spit out random combinations, and win prizes if enough of their numbers match the winning ones. Lotteries are a popular form of gambling, but they are also a way for states to raise money without increasing taxes on the general population. This dynamic has shaped the lottery’s history, and led to the modern state lottery: a monopoly for the government; a handful of simple games; a campaign to promote the games; and a growing dependence on revenue from scratch-off games and sales tax exemptions.

For a long time, the main argument for state lotteries has been that they are a “painless” source of revenue: voters want states to spend more, and politicians look at lotteries as a way to get that money from them for free. However, the growth of lotteries in the early 21st century has raised important questions about the nature of their revenue generation.

Lottery commissions have moved away from this message and now rely on two messages primarily: One is that lotteries are a great civic duty, that buying a ticket means you’re doing something for the state, that it’s a meritocratic activity. The other is that playing the lottery is a great experience, that it’s fun to scratch off a ticket and see what happens. Both of these messages are coded to obscure the regressivity of state lotteries and make them appear more benign than they are.