Is the Lottery a Tax on Low Incomes?

The lottery is a popular pastime for many people, providing an opportunity to fantasize about winning a fortune for just a couple of bucks. But for some, especially those with low incomes, the game is a serious budget drain. Several studies have found that people with lower incomes tend to participate more in the lottery and that they are more likely to lose money playing it. Thus, critics charge that lotteries are nothing more than disguised taxes on those least able to afford them.

In the United States, lotteries are run by state governments that have granted themselves monopolies on the right to conduct them. Most have a dedicated lottery division that oversees retailer selection and licensing, trains employees of retail stores to use lottery terminals, promotes the lottery games, and pays the top-tier prizes to winners. Many also operate an incentive-based program that pays retailers bonuses for meeting certain sales thresholds.

Whether the monetary loss caused by purchasing a ticket is outweighed by the entertainment value or other non-monetary benefits of doing so is a subjective judgment that can only be made by each individual player. For some, however, the disutility of a monetary loss may be sufficiently high that buying a lottery ticket becomes a rational decision.