The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, others endorse it to some degree and regulate it, and still other governments run a national or state lottery. A lottery may be used to determine many things, including the winners of a sports competition or a commercial promotion, and even to select jury members. In a more strict sense, however, a lottery is a system of giving away something of value, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school, in exchange for a payment (usually money).

Lotteries are enormously popular: in states that have them, 60 percent of adults report playing at least once a year. This broad popularity has helped them attract a large audience of very specific constituencies, such as convenience store owners and operators (lottery games are the major draw at these stores) and lottery suppliers and vendors (heavy contributions by these players to state political campaigns are reported regularly).

As with all forms of gambling, people play the lottery for various reasons. For many, there is an inextricable impulse to gamble, a desire to see if they can beat the odds, and a hope that the long shot they take will yield a great reward.

But there is another side to lottery play, a dark underbelly that is rarely discussed: the regressivity of the game. Lotteries are regressive in that they tend to draw people from lower socioeconomic classes at rates far higher than their proportion in the population. These are the people who are most likely to have a sliver of hope that they will win, and they are also the ones who are most likely to lose.

Moreover, the way that most state lotteries are run is at cross-purposes with the larger public interest. Lotteries are operated like businesses, with the explicit or implicit goal of maximizing revenues; advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money on a chance at winning. This is at odds with the responsibilities of government, which are to protect the welfare of its citizens and provide services to them.

The problem is particularly serious in the case of state lotteries, since many of these are financed by taxpayer dollars and are therefore supposed to serve the general welfare. Yet, the evolution of lottery policies is often piecemeal and incremental, with no overall policy planning or direction; thus, lottery officials are often left to their own devices, and they tend to develop policies that run counter to the broader social welfare. It is hard to imagine any other industry in which a similar situation exists.