The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is big business: it contributes billions to state coffers each year. And yet it has a dark underbelly: Lottery games prey on people’s inability to understand probability and their own frailties, offering them the false hope that winning big will solve all their problems. It doesn’t always work that way, of course – but it often does, and there is an inextricable link between winning the lottery and losing everything.

While the odds of winning the jackpot are slim (there’s a greater chance of being struck by lightning than becoming a billionaire), many people still play the lottery. Whether they play for fun or as a means of getting out of debt, they are sucked into its addictive vortex and lose control over their spending. This can leave them in dire financial straits, with debts and bills piling up and their quality of life falling sharply. In some cases, they end up worse off than before, and they have to sell their homes and even their children.

Lotteries are also used to raise funds for public projects. As early America was short on money and “defined politically by an aversion to taxation,” Cohen writes, they became an essential tool for raising cash, and were used to finance everything from civil defense to churches. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were financed through them, and the Continental Congress even tried to use one to fund the Revolutionary War.

In the modern era, lottery laws grew more permissive as states struggled with budget deficits and growing population pressures. Balancing the books became difficult without hiking taxes, and lawmakers seized on the idea that the lottery could make revenue appear almost out of nowhere.

For politicians, he writes, lottery play was the ultimate budget miracle. It allowed them to maintain services by faking prosperity, and it was a safe bet that voters would not punish them at the polls.

But the truth is that lottery play is bad for society. Despite the claims made by lottery officials, most of the money raised through the games isn’t spent on schools or hospitals. In fact, it’s mostly pocket change for the wealthy and well-connected. The rest of the money is invested in the advertising and promotion of the games, and some percentage is taken away as taxes and profits for the organizers. The rest is given to the winners, who are often not the poorest in the society. In addition, studies have shown that playing the lottery is more common among certain demographic groups — men, blacks, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These people are disproportionately exposed to advertisements and promotions for the games, which can reinforce negative stereotypes about their abilities and social standing. Moreover, the games have been linked to higher levels of addiction and lower socioeconomic status. These findings are important to keep in mind as state governments move forward with new forms of gambling. In the future, it may be necessary to consider limiting access to gambling for some groups or regulating games more strictly.