Lotteries are a popular way for state governments to raise money. The prizes are usually money or merchandise. People buy tickets, often for just a dollar, and hope that they will match the numbers drawn. If they do, they win the prize. The practice dates back to ancient times. Moses instructed the Israelites to distribute land by lottery in Numbers 26, and the Romans held lottery games during Saturnalian feasts.
It’s a big business, with 50 states now having lotteries. Between 1964 and 2019, they have raised $502 billion. That sounds like a lot, but when you put it in perspective of actual state government spending and income, it amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket.
What’s more, lotteries have an ugly underbelly: they disproportionately attract people who may not be the best stewards of taxpayer dollars. They tend to draw players who are skewed by age and education, and by race and economic status. They are people who, by their very actions, reveal a belief that the lottery is not just a game of chance, but that it’s their only way up.
The simplest explanation for this behavior is that lottery players aren’t making good decisions, at least in the sense of optimizing expected value. That’s because lottery tickets cost more than the prizes, and decision models based on expected utility maximization (or the hedonic calculus) would predict that people wouldn’t purchase them. But it’s also possible that people buy lottery tickets to experience a thrill or indulge in a fantasy of becoming rich.
In addition, the large jackpots of modern lotteries are a powerful advertising tool. They create a sense of urgency by implying that someone will be left behind if the prize doesn’t get claimed.
Those super-sized jackpots also give the games a huge windfall of free publicity on news sites and on TV, which draws in new players. The juggernaut of jackpot growth makes it harder for the prize to ever be awarded, and in turn it increases the odds of winning for those who do participate.
Lotteries are a big business, and many people play them regularly. In fact, about half of Americans buy a ticket at least once a year. The vast majority of those who play are lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite, and one in eight plays each week. This translates to as much as 70 to 80 percent of the national lottery revenue.
The lion’s share of the proceeds from lottery sales goes to education. To see how much is being contributed to your county’s schools, click or tap a county on the map below or enter a name in the search box at the top of the page. You can also download quarterly PDF reports for each county. The State Controller’s office determines how much of the lottery revenues are dispersed to K-12 schools, community college districts, and higher education institutions. For more information, visit the State Controller’s website.