British comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver argued that US state lotteries prey on the vulnerable and don’t really offer much in the way of help to education budgets in a scathing segment on his popular cable TV show this past weekend. The monologue featured plenty of humor and more than a few great jokes, but also covered serious ground on the topic of state-sponsored gambling.
To start with, Oliver took a look at just how much money is taken in by lotteries in the United States. Combined, the 44 state lotteries currently in operation took in more than $68 billion in 2013.
“That’s more than Americans spent last year on movie tickets, music, porn, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and video games combined,” Oliver noted. “Which basically means Americans spent more on the lottery than they spent on America.”
Selling a Dream
Oliver reiterated the oft-repeated point that the majority of this spending comes from low-income households that may be least able to afford to gamble. However, he also noted that this makes sense, as the lottery does provide a reasonably low-cost way to gamble as opposed to more expensive options, such as casinos.
Still, the HBO comedian criticized the way in which lotteries sell dreams of big wins to players, despite the incredibly long odds.
Even when someone manages to beat the 176 million to one odds and win the Mega Millions jackpot, Oliver said, there’s no guarantee that things will turn out well for them. He reviewed a series of typical headlines that involved lottery winners losing their money or falling into other misfortunes. This, he said, seemed to make even winning something of a gamble, one he compared to “marrying Tom Cruise.”
“Sure, it seems amazing in your mind,” Oliver joked. “You might even dream about it happening one day. But if it actually does, five years later the magic will be over, you’ll be estranged from your family, and you will have seen things you can never un-see.”
Lottery Revenue Outlays Criticized
Perhaps the most scathing commentary was reserved for what actually happens to the money collected by state lotteries.
In the majority of cases, states claim that lottery funds are going to education. But Oliver shared information that suggested that most states have simply shifted other funds away from education budgets as lottery revenues have come rolling in.
“Lotteries provided no additional funding for education in 21 out of 24 states,” said Oliver.
This may be partially due to creative accounting by budget writers, but it’s also true that there’s less money coming in through the lottery than the amount of spending would suggest. As a study by fivethirtyeight.com pointed out, most money taken in by the lottery actually goes to prizes, rather than to the states themselves. In only five states is more money allocated to the state than is set aside for prizes.
That’s not to say that there’s no benefit derived from the revenues that are taken in by the states. But Oliver pointed out that there may be better ways for people to support education than by buying lottery tickets.
“There are plenty of better ways to fund education,” Oliver said. “Sales tax, bake sale, or simply putting cash in an envelope, writing school on the front of it, and mailing it.”
British comedians are also encouraged to make massive donations from their inflated show business salaries, of course.