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Lottery sales spike when a jackpot grows to apparently newsworthy amounts. These “super-sized” jackpots also generate free publicity for the games on newscasts and websites, driving sales and fostering public interest. The fact that these jackpots are almost always disproportionately drawn by lower-income people and minorities isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does point to how the lotteries are promoting the idea that winning the prize is a route out of poverty—or at least that it’s not as bad as having to pay taxes.
When state-run lotteries began to take off in the late twentieth century, their advocates promoted them as a way to fill state coffers without increasing the burden on citizens. But evidence from the first legalized lotteries quickly put paid to this fantasy. These games raised on average two per cent of a state’s revenue, at most.
And they often exacerbate economic inequities. The proceeds from the most recent Powerball draw, for example, benefited college students and wealthier school districts far from the neighborhoods where the tickets are sold. In other words, poor people are collateral damage in the state’s quest to raise money for what its lawmakers feel are worthy purposes—public safety and local schools, for instance. “You have low-income people essentially paying for college scholarships for middle-class and upper-class families, which is the American dream completely in reverse,” says Bernal.