The Social Impact of the Lottery

A game of chance in which tokens are sold, with a prize to be awarded by drawing lots. It is sometimes sponsored by a government as a way of raising funds, but it may also be a form of entertainment or even a form of divination. Lotteries are usually run as a business, with advertising and the like. This business-like approach to gambling raises questions about its social impact, both in terms of the consequences for poor people and problem gamblers, but also in terms of whether it is a legitimate function for the state.

The principal argument used in favor of the lottery is that it provides a source of “painless” revenue, that is, players voluntarily spend their money (as opposed to being taxed) for the benefit of public goods such as education. The appeal of this argument is especially potent in periods of economic stress, when voters and politicians are searching for ways to increase spending without enraging the general public with taxes. But studies have shown that the objective fiscal condition of a state does not appear to have much effect on whether or when it adopts a lottery.

While it is true that most lottery players are clear-eyed about the odds, and many have quote-unquote systems that are totally unsupported by statistical reasoning, they do play because they believe in the mystical power of the lottery to change their lives. They are convinced that the longshot will be the one that changes everything for them. The ugly underbelly of this belief is that it can make some people feel they have no other choice.

Lottery is a very ancient activity, dating back at least to the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and is cited throughout the Bible for everything from selecting the next king of Israel to determining who gets to keep Jesus’s clothes after his Crucifixion. But it was in the 17th century that the lottery really became a widespread public phenomenon, with towns in the Low Countries organizing games to raise money for a variety of purposes.

Historically, the winners of the big prizes have been a mix of the wealthy and the middle class. But since the nineteen-seventies, as income inequality has exploded and our long-standing national promise that hard work and personal effort would allow children to do better than their parents has been broken, we have come to understand that there is no such thing as a guaranteed ticket to wealth. And the lottery has capitalized on this understanding with enormously popular jackpots.

The success of the lottery has been based on its ability to attract huge amounts of money from all sorts of people. And while this may be a good thing in terms of the overall health of the lottery industry, it is not a good thing for society at large, because it has created an environment in which many people believe that their best and perhaps only shot at a new life will be a lucky pull of a number.