The Politics of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling. It can be addictive, and it can also ruin your life. The odds of winning are slim to none, and there is a higher chance of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than winning the Mega Millions jackpot. It isn’t uncommon for people who win the lottery to find themselves worse off than before, and even those that don’t become addicted can lose all of their savings and then find themselves in a desperate financial situation. Despite all of this, people still play the lottery in large numbers. Many believe that the lottery is their only way out of poverty. It is important to remember that this type of gambling isn’t just bad for you, but it’s also bad for society as a whole.

State governments are not above taking advantage of the psychology of addiction, and they have long been using strategies similar to those used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers to keep players hooked. For example, the look of lottery tickets and the mathematics behind them are designed to make you think that you are doing good for your community when you buy a ticket, but the truth is that it is only helping the state’s coffers. In the case of the lottery, this money ends up going to things like ad campaigns and commissions for retailers, but most of it goes back to the state where it is then distributed among programs like education and gambling addiction treatment, as well as other government services.

In the years leading up to the 1964 launch of the first modern lottery, states were facing a crisis. As the nation entered a period of steep economic decline, social safety nets began to erode, pensions and jobs disappeared, and the national dream of upward mobility became more elusive for middle-class and working-class Americans than ever before. At the same time, tax revolts were gaining momentum, with voters in California passing Proposition 13, reducing property taxes by almost sixty per cent; and the federal funds that had fueled postwar expansions started to dry up.

Lotteries seemed to offer politicians a chance to maintain existing government services without raising taxes and risking a backlash from voters. In addition, as Cohen explains, legalization advocates argued that a majority of lottery revenue would go to one line item in the state budget, and often that was education, but sometimes veterans’ services or public parks. This narrow approach made it easy to campaign for, as a vote for the lottery was a vote for those services.

But the argument failed, because the number of lottery dollars that go to those services is very small, and a lot of the money from ticket sales ends up getting divided up among commissions for retailers and state commissions, overhead for the lottery system itself, and the jackpot prize. Moreover, a very significant amount of the money that people spend on tickets is actually re-invested into the ticket, and in some cases that re-investment has had little effect on the likelihood that they will win.