The Problems of the Lottery

The practice of making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long history in human culture. In the modern sense of a lottery, people pay a small sum for the chance to win money, goods or services. While the drawing of numbers for the purpose of awarding prizes has a longer history, the first recorded lotteries were public ones in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

When states adopted state lotteries in the post-World War II era, they saw them as a way to expand their range of government services without especially onerous taxation on the middle and working classes. But, while lotteries may do some good, they have also created some problems. First, they are a major source of advertising that promotes gambling in general and, specifically, the idea that winning the big jackpot will solve all your problems.

A second problem is that states are running lotteries as businesses and, as such, must maximize revenues. This requires extensive promotion, often through advertising that reaches very specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (who are often the lottery’s main suppliers); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are well-documented); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and so on.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, lottery play tends to decline as income falls. This is a direct result of the low to vanishing odds that players face, which are often exacerbated by the fact that lottery plays are heavily promoted in areas where incomes are falling.

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