Lottery games, or state-sponsored gambling, have long been a source of state revenue. In New York, for instance, more than 34 billion dollars have been generated in prize money since the state lottery first launched in 1967. The proceeds are earmarked for education and, by many accounts, have proven to be an effective tool in this regard.
But critics argue that these games do more harm than good. The lottery, they argue, disproportionately benefits college-bound students from wealthy communities far from the neighborhoods where most tickets are sold. The result is that low-income families are paying for middle and upper class students to get a college education while being left behind in their own neighborhoods. “It’s the American dream, completely in reverse,” says Bernal.
The critics, Cohen writes, hailed from both parties and all walks of life, including devout Protestants who viewed the games as morally unconscionable. But for politicians facing budget shortfalls, the state lotteries looked like a way to maintain existing services without hiking taxes and risking punishment at the polls. Lotteries seemed to be “budgetary miracles,” allowing states to generate large sums of money seemingly out of thin air.
But lottery critics say that, once the winning numbers are selected, the real story of these games is much more complicated. Unlike state governments’ previous revenue sources, such as property and sales taxes, the profits from these games come not from general tax revenues but from specific groups of people—and from very different interests.