The Dangers of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine winners. Its origins are obscure, but it dates back at least to ancient times. Its ancient roots are evident in several biblical texts, including the Old Testament story of Moses dividing land by lot, as well as Roman emperors’ practice of giving away slaves and property by lottery during Saturnalian feasts.

State governments have adopted lotteries for many reasons, most notably the desire to raise money with little or no direct taxation on their constituents. In the immediate post-World War II era, when states could afford to expand their array of social safety net services without especially onerous taxes on middle and working class citizens, this strategy seemed like a good idea. As the economic climate deteriorated, state officials were increasingly aware of the need to raise revenue. Lottery adoption and promotion were a result of this recognition.

Lotteries are widely viewed as an alternative to raising direct taxes, because the winners’ winnings are derived solely from voluntary contributions made by players. State officials promote the lottery by arguing that the money collected from players is a “painless” source of funding for public programs. The argument is particularly effective in times of fiscal stress, when politicians are anxious to avoid raising or cutting spending and rely on lottery revenues as a substitute.

Yet the lottery has become a part of Americans’ cultural fabric in spite of its negative consequences. It is a major form of recreational gambling, and people spend large sums on tickets. It is also a popular way for people to help their friends and relatives, and it is a favorite pastime among the elderly. In the United States, participation is widespread, with about a third of adults playing in some way, and many of those who play spend more than they can afford to lose.

It is important to understand the factors that make lotteries so addictive and harmful. To do so, we must first recognize the ways that state lotteries are promoted and advertised. Lottery advertising commonly presents misleading information about the odds of winning, inflates the value of prizes (by ignoring the fact that prize money is usually paid in equal annual installments for 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically reducing the current value); and so on.

In addition, the evolution of lottery operations demonstrates that government at all levels is incapable of managing an activity from which it profits. Lottery officials largely ignore concerns about compulsive gambling and the regressive impact of lottery proceeds on lower-income groups, because they are focused on the continuous expansion of their operations.