The Bad Deal of the Lottery

The lottery is a hugely popular form of gambling that has given states enormous amounts of money for schools and other public-service projects. In its most basic form, the lottery is a raffle: players pay money to enter a drawing with some chance of winning a prize. But the game’s influence goes far beyond the size of the prizes. Lotteries entice people to spend money they might not otherwise have spent, and they provide a way for state governments to raise money without raising taxes.

Since the state of Massachusetts introduced its first lottery in 1967, other states have followed suit, and their operations tend to follow similar patterns: The state legislates a state monopoly; establishes an agency or public corporation to manage it (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a share of the profits); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; then, in response to pressure to increase revenues, progressively expands its offerings, both in terms of the number and complexity of the games. In the process, it sucks in large numbers of people who might not otherwise play, and creates what critics call a “boredom factor,” leading to a steady decline in ticket sales as people become bored with the available options.

While some people do play for the money, it’s clear that most people who buy tickets are doing so for hope – the irrational, mathematically impossible hope that they’ll win. And for those people, especially those who can’t see much of a future in the economy as it is now, that sliver of hope can be quite valuable.

But what’s also true is that the lottery is a terrible deal for most people who play. It’s a form of gambling that tends to take advantage of those with the least money, and it’s also a tool for state governments to raise a lot of cash in a very short amount of time, using methods that are ultimately harmful to society.

The history of lotteries dates back to ancient times. The Old Testament contains a reference to the drawing of lots to distribute property, and the Roman emperors had a custom of giving away slaves and land by lottery during Saturnalian feasts. The modern lottery traces its roots to King James I of England, who established one in 1612. In the United States, the game gained popularity after World War II. By the 1960s, states were struggling to finance an expanding array of social services without raising taxes. The lottery was a popular alternative to high taxes, and it became a major source of revenue in many states.