Public Benefits of the California Lottery

official lottery

A gambling game in which numbered tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize, especially as a means of raising money for a public charitable purpose. Also called lotery.

While today state-run lotteries are a major source of income for states and their constituents, they have not always been so. In fact, Cohen notes that the initial reaction to lotteries in America was largely negative—especially among devout Protestants, who viewed government-sanctioned gambling as immoral. This early opposition, however, did not last long. As the lottery gained popularity in America, it became “a symbol of a society defined politically by its aversion to taxes,” he writes, and that made state-sanctioned gambling an appealing alternative for those seeking to fund everything from civil defense to public schools.

The word “lottery” itself dates back centuries, with the first recorded use appearing in town records from the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, when people used it to raise funds for building town fortifications and charity for the poor. The term was probably a contraction of Middle Dutch loterie, which was in turn a calque on Middle French loterie, which itself originated in the thirteenth century as a slang word for “drawing lots.”

Despite the moral concerns of devout Christians, and even of some secular Americans, the lottery’s popularity quickly spread in America, where state governments began to use it to fund all sorts of public services. Universities such as Harvard and Yale were largely funded by lottery money, and the Continental Congress used one to fund its fight against the British during the Revolutionary War.

By the late nineteen-twenties, lottery support was solidified by a growing movement to reduce state and federal taxes and to allow people to lower their property and income tax rates through ballot initiatives like California’s Proposition 13, which cut tax rates by sixty per cent in 1978. The lottery’s advocates argued that since gamblers were going to be playing anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits.


In California, Lottery proceeds are directed to a wide variety of educational systems, from local school districts to community college districts to statewide specialized systems such as the University of California and CSU. The following table shows how the Lottery’s contributions to education have changed over time. The data is sorted by county and then by each district’s average daily attendance (ADA) for K-12 school districts and full-time enrollment for community college and higher education systems. Click on a county or the search box to see more information about that particular county’s funding. This data was compiled from quarterly reports from the Lottery, which are available in PDF format through our website.