The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The casting of lots for decision making and determining fates has a long history (it’s even mentioned in the Bible). But state-sponsored lotteries as an instrument of economic development and public services are more recent, and have become a major revenue source for many states.

The lottery draws the attention of scholars for its ties to morality, economics and the politics of gambling. But the lottery’s popularity also raises questions about how well it serves the interests of society. Lottery promotions are aimed at selling tickets, and this focus on profit runs counter to the idea of state government as a service provider to its citizens.

Lotteries are marketed as a form of entertainment that is fun and harmless. But there is an ugly underbelly. Lotteries don’t just appeal to the desire for wealth and a sense of fairness—they also promote a belief that anyone can win, and that our current financial situation doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: The odds that you will win are overwhelmingly against you.

While the lottery draws broad public approval, critics point to the high percentage of winnings paid out in taxes, the effect on low-income people, and other social problems. One argument is that lotteries are a useful tool for state governments in times of fiscal stress, when it is hard to justify tax increases or cuts in services. But research shows that the popularity of lotteries is independent of the state’s financial situation.