I don’t get lotteries.

I certainly understand why state and local governments like lotteries since, according to this article in The Atlantic, they generate $70 billion in sales, “more than Americans in all 50 states spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets, and recorded music sales”. They collect around 40% of that total, plus taxes paid by the big “winners”. Simple, easy, non controversial income.

What I don’t understand is why people waste their money when the odds of winning more than you spend are beyond comprehension. Especially when most lottery players can’t afford it.

But it’s the poor who are really losing. The poorest third of households buy half of all lotto tickets, according to a Duke University study in the 1980s, in part because lotteries are advertised most aggressively in poorer neighborhoods. A North Carolina report from NC Policy Watch found that the people living in the poorest counties buy the most tickets. “Out of the 20 counties with poverty rates higher than 20 percent, 18 had lottery sales topping the statewide average of $200 per adult,” the North Carolina Justice Center reported.

But the negative impact of lotteries goes beyond states simply pushing new ways for people to descend even farther into poverty.

Last fall on his show Last Week Tonight (almost worth the price of HBO Now all by itself), John Oliver did a great takedown of lotteries, covering the wide array of problems with state-sponsored gambling. Including the widely used justification that proceeds from gambling will benefit education.

The reality, of course, is very different since “lotteries provided no additional funding for education in 21 out of 24 states” where the claim of helping kids and schools is made. In most, lottery profits are not added to education budgets. Instead the money is used to replace existing revenues, often allowing politicians to cut the net amount allocated for schools.

And the state addiction to gaming shows no signs of slowing down as they look to expand gambling “opportunities”, such as slot machines, table games, licensing full casinos1 and even creating lottery apps for your smartphone.

John closes his segment with a good summary of the major problems with state-sponsored gambling.

As I think we’ve seen by now, lotteries are bad for losers, often bad for winners, and a pretty compromising way to assist state budgets.

Think about it this way, gambling is a little like alcohol: most people like it, some people are addicted to it, and it’s not like the state can or should outlaw it altogether. But it would be a little strange if the state was in the liquor business, advertising it by claiming that every shot of vodka you drink helps school children learn.

Finally, there’s one more reason to dislike paying for public education using lottery money. The policy reinforces the image of schools as charitable institutions. Instead of something willingly funded by everyone, because we consider educating our kids to be an essential part of a modern society.