The Darker Side of the Lottery

Gambling Aug 30, 2023

Lotteries are a form of gambling in which tickets are sold for the chance to win money or other prizes. They are legalized and operated by state governments. The prizes may be cash, goods, or services. The odds of winning depend on how many tickets are sold. Typically, a large percentage of the ticket price goes to the prize pool. The remainder is used to pay profits for the promoter and any expenses or taxes incurred. In the US, a majority of states now conduct lottery games. The earliest state-run lotteries were held in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century, but their popularity did not spread widely until after the English Civil War.

In the immediate post-World War II period, lotteries provided a way for states to expand their programs without having to raise tax rates, an arrangement that suited voters as well as politicians. In the nineteen-seventies, however, economic growth began to stall, and state budgets shrank. This prompted states to seek new sources of revenue. Lotteries seemed like a perfect solution: people would be voluntarily spending their own money, in exchange for the possibility that they might win a big jackpot.

There is, of course, a certain inextricable human impulse to gamble, and many people do enjoy the adrenaline rush of a high-stakes game. But there is a darker underbelly to the lottery, too: The fact is that most people will never win. Even if you do, it is very unlikely that you will win a prize larger than the cost of your ticket. The most common prize is a small amount of cash, but there are also prizes of cars, vacations, and other items.

The idea of making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. But drawing the lots for material gain is a more recent phenomenon, beginning in the fourteen-hundreds with public lotteries for town fortifications and charity for the poor. They became especially popular in the Low Countries, where towns arranged private lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes.

By the sixteenth century, the lottery had spread to England, where Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first, to fund “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” The word is probably derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate, or perhaps a calque on Middle French loterie, “action of drawing lots.”

In the nineteenth century, states continued to introduce lotteries to their budgets as a way to avoid raising taxes. Politicians claimed that the lottery was a “budgetary miracle,” one that could float a state’s entire program of services without upsetting an anti-tax electorate. They argued that the proceeds from the lottery would cover one line item, usually education, but sometimes something else, such as veterans’ care or parks or elder-care services.

The problem with this strategy is that it is, in effect, a kind of double-taxation. Lotteries extract money from the public, but they also imply that anyone who does not support the lottery is supporting the government’s refusal to raise taxes. It is a cynical strategy, but it has been successful.