Rethinking the Lottery


The lottery is an ancient pastime, dating back thousands of years. In biblical times, it was used to distribute land and slaves; during Roman Saturnalias, guests at dinner parties were given pieces of wood with symbols on them that were drawn for prizes at the end of the evening. And it was a popular feature of Dutch colonial life in the seventeenth century, even in the face of Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

State-run lotteries typically have broad public support, and many people play them regularly. But they also cultivate specific constituencies: convenience store owners (the usual vendors); lottery suppliers, who are often hefty contributors to state political campaigns; teachers (in states where the revenues are earmarked for education); and, of course, the people who play the games themselves.

Once a state adopts a lottery, it is hard to reverse the policy, and the focus of debate and criticism tends to shift from the general desirability of a lottery to its specific features. As the industry evolves, concerns over compulsive gambling and its regressive impact on low-income communities, for example, become more pressing.

The lottery’s growth and popularity coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans, as income inequality widened, pensions and job security eroded, health-care costs climbed, and the long-standing national promise that hard work would yield a secure middle class faded into history. For many people, the lottery offered a way to escape this reality and to live the dream of unimaginable wealth.

But there are serious problems with this dream. A lottery is essentially a form of taxation, and it is a bad idea to ask people who struggle to make ends meet to spend their money on the hope of winning huge sums that will not improve their financial situations in any measurable way.

Furthermore, the lottery’s advertising strategy is inherently regressive and encourages compulsive gambling. Most lottery advertising is targeted at middle- and upper-income neighborhoods, while lower-income households participate in the lottery at significantly lower rates than their share of the overall population.

In order to sustain the lottery’s popularity, it is necessary to address these concerns. But this is a difficult task, and one that requires rethinking how the lottery operates as a state-sponsored enterprise. For too long, it has operated as a business with the primary function of generating revenue, rather than promoting the interests of all residents of a state. Until this changes, it will be impossible for the lottery to live up to its name. It will remain an expensive and addictive dream for the poor. And it will continue to be a source of endless controversy.