The Good and Bad Side of Lottery


Lottery is a game of chance in which players pay for tickets to be randomly spit out of machines and win prizes if enough of their numbers match those drawn. Though making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history, the use of lottery games to distribute material goods is much younger. The first public lotteries to sell tickets with prize money are recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century for town fortifications and charity. The English word “lottery” is probably derived from Middle Dutch loterie, but there are records of private lottery games as early as the 16th century in England and America.

A modern-day state lottery operates along very similar lines to a privately owned one: the government legislates a monopoly for itself; sets up a state agency or corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a portion of its profits); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to pressure from constant demands for additional revenues, gradually expands its operations by adding new and more complex games. Lotteries are a very effective way for states to raise money for a wide range of purposes without the more onerous taxes that plague the masses.

For the most part, lottery proceeds are earmarked for specific uses, which gives them broad popular support. But, despite their broad popularity, lotteries also cultivate extensive and specific constituencies, including convenience-store operators (whose representatives often hold high-ranking posts in lottery management); suppliers (heavy contributions to lottery-related political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which most of the money goes to schools); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to extra cash in their budgets).

In addition, there’s just that inextricable human impulse to gamble and hope for a better future, whether it’s a ticket to the Superbowl or a gleaming Powerball jackpot billboard on the side of the highway. And, for the most part, a little bit of that dream can go a long way toward improving people’s lives.

There’s an ugly underbelly to this, of course. It’s that the lottery dangles the prospect of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And while there’s an inextricable link between gambling and poverty, a lottery ticket can give some people the false impression that they can pull themselves out of it, as if there were just a few lucky strikes away from a fortune to be made. For these reasons, there is a growing movement to end state-sponsored lotteries.