The Social Costs of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling that combines chance and skill. Players purchase a ticket for a fixed prize, usually monetary, and then draw numbers or symbols from a pool to win. It is popular in the United States, and a variety of other nations around the world, and it raises billions in revenue each year. Some argue that the lottery is a benign form of taxation; others point to its social costs, including its effects on the economy and society.

The modern lottery traces its roots back to the fourteenth century. The first state-sponsored lotteries were created in the Low Countries, where they were used to finance town fortifications and to give charity to the poor. The practice spread to England in the sixteenth century, and the first English national lottery was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1567. She designated its profits for the “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets cost ten shillings, a substantial sum in those days. Moreover, the winners received not only a prize money but also a get-out-of-jail card, as long as they didn’t commit murder, treason, or piracy.

In modern times, the state-sponsored lottery is often seen as a way for states to raise money without incurring the political costs of raising taxes or cutting services. In the late nineteen-sixties, as the nation reeled from the Vietnam War, inflation began to rise, and federal money to state coffers dried up. This left many states searching for solutions to their budget crises that wouldn’t enrage an increasingly anti-tax electorate. This is when the lottery really took off, Cohen writes.

Its advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect some of the profits. They also dismissed the ethical objections that had long plagued gambling, such as the belief that it tended to exploit poor people.

Lotteries are typically organized in two ways: either a central organization records the identities and stakes of participants and then selects winners by drawing from a pool; or the organizers sell numbered receipts to bettors, who mark them with their names, which are then gathered for a prize draw. A few lottery organizations use computers to record the information.

A major problem with the former type of lottery is that it tends to be rigged, especially in the United States. Rich people spend far more on tickets than poor people, which distorts the results of the drawing. In addition, there is the inextricable fact that the lottery draws on an inborn human impulse to gamble. This impulse is augmented by the promise that the prize will solve one’s problems or bring instant wealth. In a time of inequality and limited opportunity, the lottery’s promises have great appeal. It is no surprise, then, that so many people play the game. The question is whether the lottery will be able to keep its promises. If not, it will be destined to become just another victim of the American dream.

Posted in: Gambling