Why Do We Still Play the Lottery?


In the United States, lottery players spend billions of dollars annually. While some of them are purely recreational gamblers, many see winning the lottery as a way to achieve the wealth they have long sought. But despite the odds of winning, lotteries continue to attract millions of people and generate billions in revenue for state governments. So why do so many people play, and what does the experience tell us about our nation’s values?

While the casting of lots has a long history in human society, using it to determine fates for material gain is relatively recent. The first public lottery to distribute prize money was a charitable event in Bruges, Belgium, in 1466, for town repairs. The modern-day lottery evolved in the nineteen-sixties, when a rise in state spending, driven by population growth, inflation, and the cost of wars, began to strain budgets. Raising taxes or cutting services would be wildly unpopular with voters, and lottery advocates argued that the state could adopt a new source of “painless” revenue.

Initially, state-run lotteries were characterized by relatively small prizes, low ticket prices, and a fixed number of games per week. In these early days, lottery profits were used to pay for public services, but the emphasis quickly shifted to generating revenue and profits for sponsors. Lottery profits were often boosted by a requirement that a percentage of the total pool be deducted for administrative and vendor costs, with the rest allocated to prize winners. The large jackpots and high advertised visibility of the lottery also helped boost sales.

The state-run lottery’s popularity grew even faster as the nation’s long boom turned to bust in the nineteen-seventies. As wages stagnated, wealth gaps widened, and social safety net benefits eroded, Americans began to realize that the old national promise—that education and hard work would make them better off than their parents—was fading fast. Lottery revenues rose as a result, and a sense of hopelessness among many Americans turned into a desperate desire for instant riches.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run state-run lotteries. The six that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada, which allow gambling, already get a cut of federal lottery proceeds—refuse to adopt the model for budgetary reasons.

While defenders of the lottery argue that its players are either ignorant or enjoy the game regardless of how unlikely they are to win, Cohen argues that the lottery is a symptom of a profound societal change. The lottery’s success correlates directly with economic fluctuations: Its popularity rises as incomes fall, unemployment rates climb, and poverty rates increase. And it’s marketed most heavily in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino. The result is a reversal of traditional American values, as we trade the promise that hard work will yield financial security for the fantasy that a big win can fix everything. Read the full article at NerdWallet.