The Social Implications of the Lottery

A lottery is an arrangement for the distribution of prizes by chance among those buying tickets. The prizes may be cash or goods, and the ticket holders are usually paid a fixed percentage of the total receipts. A lottery is distinguished from other forms of gambling, such as betting on sports or horse races, by the fact that there are no odds involved.

Cohen, a historian of the American lottery, is primarily concerned with its modern incarnation, beginning in 1964, when New Hampshire, a state famously tax-averse, approved the first state-run lottery. This development coincided with the onset of America’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt. Amid population growth, inflation, and the costs of the Vietnam War, it became increasingly difficult for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

Advocates of lotteries argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, government might as well pocket the proceeds. That argument had its limits, but it gave moral cover to people who supported state-run gambling. For example, some white voters backed the lottery because they believed it would attract black numbers players, who would help pay for government services they disliked, like urban schools.

To make their lotteries profitable, lottery companies promote the message that playing is fun and a great experience. They also emphasize the huge jackpots and promise that it is possible to become rich overnight. This message obscures the regressivity of the games. Those who play the lottery are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. They spend a much larger percentage of their incomes on tickets than do those who do not.

But the most important thing that lottery advocates fail to tell us is that winning the lottery isn’t a guarantee of wealth. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people who win to find themselves worse off than they were before. Moreover, many states have policies that prevent people from using their winnings to purchase more tickets or invest the money in other ventures. This makes it even more important to understand the social implications of the lottery, especially as it relates to inequality.