How Lottery Revenues Are Used to Fund State Services

Lottery, in general, is a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers for a prize. The casting of lots for determining fates has a long history (there are even a few instances in the Bible) but lotteries as a means of raising money to fund state services are fairly recent, dating from the 15th century in Europe. The first public lotteries were designed to raise funds for municipal repairs and help the poor.

In an anti-tax era, the idea that states could expand their array of social safety net services without imposing particularly onerous taxes on middle-class and working class taxpayers was a very attractive proposition. The modern era of state lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964 and since then virtually all states have established them. Lottery revenues have been a major source of revenue for state governments and have largely replaced traditional general tax revenues.

Because lottery operations are business entities with the goal of maximizing profits, advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend a significant share of their income on tickets. This marketing message is at cross-purposes with the stated goals of the government, which include reducing compulsive gambling and the alleged regressive impact on low-income citizens.

As a result, the success of lotteries depends on continuous introduction of new games to maintain and increase revenues. Although revenues typically explode initially upon their introduction, they eventually level off and may decline, especially in the case of lotteries that sell scratch cards with very high odds of winning.