New York’s Official Lottery

Official lottery means a state-sponsored game of chance in which participants buy tickets and hope to win a prize by matching one or more of a series of numbers or symbols. The term also refers to the process of announcing the winners, which is often done in public. Some people prefer to play private games, which are not regulated by the state, or participate in unofficial lotteries, which are often organized at parties or private gatherings. The state does not regulate private lotteries, but it does oversee official lotteries.

New York’s lotteries raise about a quarter of the state budget, according to state figures. It’s a small amount, but it’s not insignificant, and it helps to fund important things like schools and police officers. But that’s not the whole story. Lotteries are a form of taxation, and like all taxes, they disproportionately hit poor people the hardest.

That’s because the money they bring in comes from the poorest parts of society. Lottery supporters argue that the money is necessary for vital government services, but that’s a myth. It’s true that lottery money does support some important government services, but it’s not enough to make up for the fact that it’s a regressive tax on low-income citizens.

Lotteries began in America with the same purpose as any other tax, but they’ve changed over time. In the earliest era, states used them to pay for public works, from canals and roads to churches and schools. They also financed a number of military campaigns, including the Revolutionary War. But by the 1800s, America had become, as Cohen puts it, “defined politically by an aversion to taxation.” That was part of what led to prohibition. It’s also partly what drove a moral backlash against gambling, including the lottery, that started around 1800, when Denmark Vesey won a Charleston lottery and used it to try to buy his freedom.

In the early 21st century, lottery advocates began to change the message. They stopped arguing that the lottery would float most of a state’s budget and instead framed it as a way to pay for a specific line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan, such as education, elder care or public parks. This approach made it easier to campaign for legalization, because voters could imagine themselves supporting the lottery as a way of funding their favorite service. But it was also a lie. The average state’s lottery revenue makes up less than one per cent of its total budget, and most of that is spent on administrative costs. That’s not enough to fund a social safety net, and it’s not even close to being enough to justify the enormous promotional expenses that accompany it.