Taxes and the Lottery

A lottery is a system for awarding prizes, such as money, by drawing lots. The word derives from the Dutch noun lot, which itself is derived from the Middle Dutch noun lotinge, meaning “action of drawing lots.” The first state-sponsored lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor. A record of a lottery in the city of Ghent, in Flanders, dates to 1445.

Lottery winners are subject to federal and state taxes, depending on the jurisdiction. In the United States, a winning lottery ticket can cost 24 percent of its prize value before any federal taxes are paid. If a winner is in the top tax bracket, the taxes can cut their jackpot prize by more than half.

The main issue in most states is the government’s dependence on lottery revenues and the constant pressure to increase those revenues, even at the expense of other state budget items. Other issues include the proliferation of games that have a high percentage of house edge (scratch cards, video poker, etc.); the tendency for advertising to present misleading information about the odds of winning a lottery prize, and the inflating of the actual value of jackpot amounts (which are typically paid in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the initial sum); and the fact that most lottery players and winners come from middle-income neighborhoods, while far fewer play from low-income neighborhoods.