The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America. People spend upward of $100 billion on tickets every year, and state lotteries claim to be a great way to raise revenue for everything from schools to highways. But just how much of that money ends up helping children, and whether it’s a good trade-off for those who lose money on their ticket purchases, are open to debate. And while it’s easy to assume that the lottery is a morally harmless pastime, the reality is that it has a dark underbelly.

For most of American history, state lotteries were seen as a morally legitimate way to raise money. After all, states needed money to fund larger social safety nets, and they wanted to do it without the need for onerous taxes on middle- and working-class families. Then came the 1960s, and a tectonic shift occurred. With the growing cost of a war and the emergence of inflation, states began to see that their old model for generating revenue was no longer sustainable, and they turned to more direct means of taxing citizens.

As a result, the lottery became more commonplace in the United States. State legislatures legalized it as a monopoly, established an agency or public corporation to run it, and started operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. From there, the trend has been for lotteries to progressively expand in size and complexity.

The odds of winning a lottery are actually quite low, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to beat the odds and win big. They’re driven by a combination of FOMO (fear of missing out) and a meritocratic belief that if they play enough, they’ll eventually be rich. To get those odds down, some states have even increased or decreased the number of balls used in the drawing.

Those who are lucky enough to win a lottery prize may find that their newfound wealth can quickly deplete the savings and assets they’ve worked hard for. In fact, many lottery winners end up worse off than before they won the jackpot. So while the lottery is technically legal and doesn’t appear to cause any major harm, it still promotes gambling and could be harmful for certain groups of people, including the poor and problem gamblers.

Lottery advertisements also convey a message that winning the lottery is a good thing to do, that it’s like “doing your civic duty,” or that you’re helping the kids or something. This is a misleading message, because it obscures the regressivity of the lottery and glosses over the fact that it’s really a tax on middle-class families. In addition, lottery players are disproportionately drawn from lower-income neighborhoods. It’s a form of income-based discrimination that deserves scrutiny. Ultimately, it’s time for a change in how states view their lotteries. They need to recognize that they are a form of taxation and that the costs outweigh the benefits, especially for those most vulnerable to gambling addiction.