The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


Since 1964, when New Hampshire became the first state to establish a lottery, spending on tickets has boomed and jackpots have grown. But what you may not know is that the players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite and male, with one in eight Americans buying at least one ticket every week. In other words, the lottery is a game for people who can’t afford to gamble much of their income on anything else.

In fact, there’s an ugly underbelly to lotteries that goes beyond their regressive nature. The truth is that many people who buy them aren’t doing it for the money, but because they feel like a win is their only chance at a better life. It’s an all-too-familiar feeling, which is why so many people play.

The roots of the modern lottery go back centuries, with the casting of lots used for everything from deciding who gets a king’s crown to choosing who’ll keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. But it’s only in the twentieth century that they began to take on such a prominent role. As states struggled to find ways to balance their budgets that wouldn’t enrage anti-tax voters, lotteries grew in popularity.

Lotteries are not a good solution to budget deficits, as they tend to raise more than they spend, but they offer an easy and cheap way for governments to appeal to people’s fantasies of becoming rich. Their success also illustrates the importance of understanding how different people perceive risk and value.