The official lottery is a fixture in American life, with people in the US spending upward of $100 billion on tickets each year. It’s the most popular form of gambling in the country, and state lotteries have every incentive to promote themselves as good for the state because they raise money. But it’s worth examining just how meaningful that revenue is in the context of overall state budgets, and whether it’s something we want to be encouraging.

It’s partly a moral and religious distaste for gambling that started to turn the tide against state-sponsored lotteries in the 1800s, Matheson says. But corruption also played a role, with officials in state lotteries taking advantage of the trust of players.

But for a number of low-income people, the lottery represents a way out of their circumstances. “When people feel like they can’t do anything to make ends meet, they will gamble,” says Cornell University economist David Just, who studies the relationship between state lotteries and poverty. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, there was an uptick in lottery playing, Just notes. It’s the sense that you could win the jackpot, he adds, that’s so appealing to some people.

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