The Public Good and the Lottery


The lottery is a gambling game in which people purchase a ticket to win a prize. The prize is typically a sum of money, but it can also be goods or services. The odds of winning a lottery vary based on how many tickets are sold and how much the ticket costs. The odds of winning the top prize, often millions of dollars, are extremely low. The word “lottery” comes from the Latin for “fate” or “chance.” Lotteries have a long history. The Old Testament contains dozens of examples of land being distributed by lot. In ancient Rome, the emperors used them to give away slaves and property at Saturnalian feasts.

Lotteries can be organized by individuals, private corporations, or governments. In the United States, state-run lotteries account for about two percent of total state revenue. In some cases, the prizes are awarded by random drawing. In other cases, a winner is chosen through a process of selection and elimination. In either case, the goal is to maximize the number of winners and to minimize the cost of a given prize.

While some people are irrationally drawn to lottery games, others make clear-eyed decisions about the odds of winning and the value of a given prize. The people who spend the most on lottery tickets come from the 21st through 60th percentile of income distribution, people with a few dollars left over for discretionary spending. They also have the fewest opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation in their lives. So they have a strong incentive to try to improve their situation by playing the lottery.

But there’s a much bigger problem with this picture: state lotteries are dangling the promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility. Lottery advertising explicitly appeals to a basic human desire to gamble. It’s why we see billboards along the highway with huge jackpot amounts. And it’s why the ad for the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot will always grab your attention.

Another way that lotteries undermine the public good is by underfunding education. The State Controller’s Office determines how much Lottery funds are dispersed to local educational institutions by county. Click or tap a county on the map to view the amount of funding that was distributed to that school district.

The State Controller’s Office also publishes quarterly PDF reports on the allocation of Lottery funds by county. These reports are available by clicking or tapping here. These documents provide details on the types of schools and students that received Lottery support in the most recent quarter. These reports are a great way to learn more about the impact of Lottery funding and how it is allocated across the state. Please keep in mind that these reports are preliminary and are subject to change. The State Controller’s Office will continue to review and update the information in these reports as new data becomes available. Thanks for your continued patience as we work to continue to provide the highest level of transparency and accountability to our residents.

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