HBO’s John Oliver on State Lotteries and Education

By Mark Walsh — November 19, 2014 2 min read
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British comic John Oliver wrapped up the first season of his “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO recently with a look at state lotteries and whether they are fulfilling their promise of helping education.

His verdict: They are not.

For the unfamiliar, the 37-year-old Oliver was a contributor to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and a fill-in for that show’s host, Jon Stewart, last year when Stewart was on leave. On his own hit show, Oliver explores some serious policy issues with wit and hijinks. Writing in The New York Times this week, media columnist David Carr called it “a big explainer of a complicated issue,” the “arcane scraps from the cutting-room floor of most newsrooms.”

For example, to address the question of the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to televise its arguments, “Last Week Tonight” assembled a collection of nine dogs of different breeds, dressed them in robes and placed them on a courtroom set, then spliced the video with real audio from Supreme Court arguments. The sketch is hilarious, and was a big hit when I played it at an education law conference last week.

For the lottery segment, Oliver discusses the 44 states with lotteries that collected $68 billion in revenue in 2013.

“When you think about it, it’s a little bit strange for the government to basically be in the gambling business,” Oliver says in the nearly 15-minute segment. (Warning: The show is on HBO, and Oliver uses some four-letter words, though they are bleeped.)

Ep. 24 Clip: Lottery

“The lottery is in the business of selling people hope, and they do a great job of that,” says Oliver, who shows lots of lottery commercials, as well as excerpts of news reports that explore the effects of state lotteries.

New Hampshire launched first state lottery in 1964, with the promise of funding education, he notes.

“For all the claims that lotteries are a huge boost to education, the reality is a little different,” Oliver says, showing an unidentified news clip suggesting that in 24 states with lotteries dedicated to education, 21 had not increased education spending.

Oliver cites the North Carolina Education Lottery, started 10 years ago under then-Gov. Mike Easley, who says in a clip that it will lead to an increase of a half-billion dollars for education.

“Half a billion extra—that sound’s great,” Oliver says. “You’d think that by now, all North Carolina preschoolers would strutting around in fine bespoke suits quoting Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. But in fact, North Carolina currently spends less per capita on education than it did when the lottery even began.”

“Last Week Tonight” returns to HBO for a new season in February.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.