U.S. sales of lotteries have amounted to about 70 billion dollars in fiscal year 2014. This is more than the sales of sports tickets, books, video games, movie box office, and music sales combined .
With the 1964 New Hampshire Lottery, the modern day lotteries have since spread nationwide (with the exception of Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, Hawaii, Mississippi and Utah), primarily to fund the states. Indeed, state legislators once believed that this lucrative giant would one day save the states from debt. Frankly though, lotteries have turned out to create nothing but detrimental social and economical problems.
Far from sinful, lottery ticket purchases have instead become socially approved ways of supporting the state . In 2014, of the 44 states that implement lotteries, $19.93 billion on average was allocated to state funding, which includes, but are not limited to: environmental preservation, welfare costs, and most importantly, education . Numerous ads appeal to the idea that lottery actually benefits schoolchildren. Adverts from Florida Lottery use taglines such as “When you play, graduations apply,” and New York Lottery Everybody Wins advertising claim that a portion of a ticket goes into funding K-12 state schools.
While the numbers suggest a huge sum, in reality, many states fail to keep the promises, especially when it comes to education. In 2013, only a few states allocated more than 50% of their lottery revenues to their state funds: Delaware, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia. The remaining 38 states transferred significantly less, with Arkansas and Massachusetts contributing the least: only 21% . In North Carolina, fiscal years 2013 to 2014, former governor Mike Easley have announced that the state plans to invest half a billion dollars of proceeds from North Carolina Education Lottery in K-12 education. Despite the announcement, less per-pupil on education was spent, which was even less than the amount from the first year’s spending .
While California Lottery has proceeded $24 billion of its funds to public school donations since 1985, the state still fails to meet its education needs. Virginia Lottery has generated $450 million dollars annually, yet the money has been used by legislatures to cover for education “expenses,” and not for the extra contribution it was originally intended to be. In 2011, Maryland raised more than $519 million to contribute to the state, which was planned to be spent on various programs from education to public health and safety. Yet, the state government is considering raising taxes to maintain the state’s highly regarded public education system .
Not only that, while lotteries attract the poor, their funds are not returned to the lower income neighborhoods that actually generate most of the revenue. Lottery is commonly viewed as “a painless tax that raises public funds without coercion,” an effective way of redistributing wealth from the rich to poor, which ironically operates under “a business model that’s based on getting up to 70 to 80% of their revenue from 10% of the people that actually use the lottery” . Multiple researches have been conducted to study socio-demographic correlations of lottery participation: according to Wolff, “Lotteries take huge sums from masses of middle-income and poor people who would otherwise have spent all that money on goods and services whose production would have provided jobs for others.” A study conducted by Barnes reveals that individuals from disadvantaged neighborhoods have the highest number of days participating in the lottery and the lowest three socioeconomic status groups had the highest rate of lottery gambling. Wiggins found that lottery outlets were often clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods with a large number of minorities .
Yet, it has become significantly easier to participate in lottery today. One can purchase it without having to go all the way to the nearest convenient store. Multiple states have introduced smartphone apps downloadable through Google App play and Apple App Store. Pennsylvania has a mobile application that even offers information on current jackpots, daily and past winning numbers, and even the latest instant games, such as “Scratch For Fun” . Some states, including California, have implemented lotteries at gas pumps and even ATMs. Oregon, which currently licenses more than 12,000 video slot machines, encourages lottery retailers to embrace such machines. These machines can be found almost everywhere: bars, restaurants, taverns and bowling allies . While easier access to lottery games may lead to more addictions, only a handful of states enforce strict regulations.
Another important factor that may lead to long, lifetime addiction is underage participation. According to Felsher et al., despite its legal prohibition, lottery tickets were easily accessible to minors. In fact, there are parents that routinely gift tickets to their underage children . And while underage participants did not perceive themselves as gamblers or view lotteries as a form of gambling , a recent study conducted in Yale University showed that “the receipt of scratch lottery tickets as gifts during childhood and adolescence was associated with risky and problematic gambling and with gambling-related attitudes, behaviors, and views suggesting gambling acceptability”  In fact, the Alabama Policy Institute released a study on lottery gambling, concluding that “more gambling addictions are related to lottery than any other game” . And while gambling critics point to lottery’s potential addictiveness as a major social issue, the scope of lottery has expanded to include a variety of new, exciting, and accessible games.
Aggressive marketing and advertising is another leading factor that not only motivates gambling, but also endorses the dream of quick wealth that drives gambling addiction. For example, New York Lottery’s Yeah, that Kind of Rich campaign feature individuals with a built-in aquarium at home and a private jet (#goals). Indeed, “Our proclivity for fantasy makes us an easy target for advertising,” which often favor friendly, appealing themes of happier luxurious life .
Considering all these facts, a question emerges: are these investments (coming from most participants’ life savings) returned rightfully to the buyers, particularly those who are in desperate need of support? EdBuild’s 2014 comprehensive analysis answers no. Its research compares each of the low and high-income Los Angeles district schools: Inglewood and La Cañada, respectively. On an adjusted formula where the money is allocated proportionally to revenue from the two region’s lottery ticket sales, La Cañada Unified received approximately $105 more per-student. On the contrary, Inglewood, a neighborhood that has spent $28.4 million on lotteries, received $211 less. EdBuild concludes the following:
“Because poor communities pay so much more into the lottery than wealthy ones, and because the current system of allocations does not take into account the neighborhoods’ levels of investment, low-income areas get shortchanged, while affluent ones are radically overpaid” .
But what efforts can be made to better address this problem? Due to the lotteries’ easy accessibility in spite of legal prohibitions and their addictiveness, it is critical that we acknowledge the problem and develop ethical policies and prevention programs accordingly. Communications must be designed to inform, rather than to induce citizens to participate. Indiana makes a clear and successful case in point: “no children will be used in advertising nor will advertising be directed toward them,” “odds of winning will be clearly stated in advertising where appropriate”, and “ads will be careful not to sell the dream of a way out of their current financial situation” . Likewise, the state government should operate ethically and be as transparent as possible. A fairer distribution, for example, should be given to the schools based on how much lottery sales were made in these areas. If the government were to continue preying on the impoverished, they must then receive what they deserve.