The Social Impact of Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling that involves paying a consideration, such as money, for the chance to win a prize. It has a long history, although the casting of lots to determine decisions and fates has even longer roots (it appears in the Bible). The modern lottery, as Cohen explains it, began to grow in popularity in America in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the betting business collided with a crisis in state funding. As a consequence of the baby boom, inflation, and the costs of the Vietnam War, America’s prosperity was eroding and, for many states with generous social safety nets, it became harder and harder to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services.

State legislatures legalized state-run lotteries, granting them a monopoly to sell tickets; set up government agencies or public corporations to run them; began operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by pressure to maximize revenues, progressively expanded the range of available options. This expansion, in turn, has fueled increased advertising and a steady increase in ticket prices. As a result, lottery revenues have risen to record levels in recent years and the number of people playing has likewise increased.

The big question, of course, is whether these massive profits are justified in terms of the social good that they serve. For the most part, state-run lotteries send two main messages to their players:

One message is that they are fun. Lottery ads feature happy people and they rely on an inextricable human impulse to gamble that is hard to overcome. The other, which is less explicit but no less powerful, is that lottery play can be a civic duty, similar to voting or donating blood. Lottery advertisements make this point by featuring quotes from prominent members of society and by stressing that the proceeds of the games help children and other worthy causes.

It is no accident, however, that both of these messages tend to appeal mainly to the wealthy. As Clotfelter and Cook explain, the majority of lottery players and revenues come from middle-class neighborhoods; in fact, low-income people play at disproportionately lower rates than their percentage in the population. The reason is that these advertisements are selling, not an opportunity to change lives, but the fantasy of instant wealth. This enticement to engage in risky behavior is not just deceptive but corrosive. It leads to bad decisions and bad habits that have real consequences for poor people, problem gamblers, and the general health of our communities. This is the underlying tragedy of our lottery obsession. Until we do something about it, we will continue to find ourselves in a country where wealth and luck are unevenly distributed. And that’s no way to live.