Reducing the Regressive Impact of Lottery Revenue on Low-Income Families


Whether they win or lose, lottery players get a lot of value out of their tickets. They spend a couple of minutes, a few hours, or a few days dreaming and imagining what life would be like if they hit the jackpot. It’s this emotional value, as irrational and mathematically impossible as it may be, that drives many Americans to play.

The lottery has been a part of our culture for hundreds of years. In almost every state, there is a lottery to raise money for some kind of public good. But how valuable is that revenue and how much of a burden are those tickets on the average household?

Lotteries have come under increasing scrutiny for the amount of time that people waste playing them. They are also known for the regressive effect they have on lower-income groups. The biggest criticism of lotteries is that they are gambling. But even if we take the irrational gambler out of the equation, there are still several problems with lottery operations.

Most state lotteries follow a similar structure: the state legislates a monopoly; creates a public agency or a corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the profits); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to the pressure to increase revenues, progressively expands the lottery’s operations by adding new games. This expansion has come at a cost to the public and has made lotteries a major source of income tax revenue for states.

In addition, the large prize sizes attract high-profile winners who provide the industry with positive publicity. This has helped to change the perception of the lottery from a low-income subsidy into one that provides a chance for “everyone to be rich.” The recasting of the image of the lottery has contributed to its rising popularity among the upper middle class and the wealthy.

As a result, it is hard to make the case that the lottery provides an essential service for society. It is a form of gambling that does not produce a significant net benefit to the economy or society as a whole, and it has regressive effects on low-income families.

To reduce the regressive impact of lotteries, states should consider reducing or eliminating prizes and focusing on raising education funds. In addition, they should limit the advertising and promotion of the lottery to ensure that it is seen as a way for people to improve their lives, rather than a path to instant wealth. Finally, they should encourage people to use their winnings to save for emergencies and pay down debt. If they do that, people will stop spending $80 billion a year on lottery tickets and thereby help their state budgets. It’s an idea worthy of consideration, even in a nation where so many people are struggling to survive.