In the United States, lotteries have raised billions of dollars for state and local governments. They are popular for their low prices, high prizes, and ease of purchase. But they are also controversial for the way that they raise money for public purposes and their impact on communities.
As a result, they are increasingly subject to scrutiny and criticism. Yet, despite their many flaws, they continue to be a major source of funds for state projects. The New York lottery is the largest, raising billions of dollars each year. Its proceeds go mainly to education. The New Jersey lottery has generated millions of dollars for the state’s colleges and universities. And in Canada, where the games have been legal since 1967, the provincial and territorial governments run national lotteries to fund schools, social services, and infrastructure.
In this country, the earliest lotteries were organized to raise funds for a variety of needs and to reward loyal soldiers. Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to help fund his militia, John Hancock ran one for Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington used one to build a road in Virginia over a mountain pass.
In the era of budget crises and an antitax electorate, lotteries became an alternative to traditional revenue sources. But critics say that defenders of the industry are in denial about how much the money actually helps. They argue that lottery sales increase as incomes fall and unemployment rise, or when they are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.