The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

A lottery is a game where participants choose numbers that are randomly drawn and hope to win. The winnings are usually cash or merchandise. Historically, lotteries have been used for various purposes: as entertainment (Nero loved to hold a lottery during Roman Saturnalia parties) or as a way of divining God’s will—it was not uncommon to use lots to determine everything from the next king of England to which family member could keep Jesus’ garment after the Crucifixion. Today, lottery has become a major source of state revenue and the biggest of all commercial games, with jackpots often reaching tens of millions of dollars.

The defenders of the lottery argue that people are going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well collect some of the proceeds. This argument has its limits—it gives moral cover to those who approve of the lottery in order to finance programs they wouldn’t otherwise endorse, such as better schools for poor children—and it has been a crucial element in the lottery’s growth.

The popularity of the lottery, however, also has its ugly underbelly. In many states, lottery sales increase as incomes fall and unemployment rises; the tickets are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino. The wealthy do play, but they buy fewer tickets and spend a smaller percentage of their incomes on them. In general, the lottery seems to encourage a meritocratic belief that we are all going to get rich—which is statistically futile and distracts us from hard work and other virtues.