The Sliver of Hope in the Lottery


The lottery is one of the most popular gambling activities in the United States, with players spending more than $100 billion per year. No other gambling industry can boast that kind of revenue. But what is it about the lottery that attracts so many people? In the broadest sense, the lottery offers a tiny sliver of hope for change. Even though there are a million ways to lose money, most people buy tickets with the expectation that, somehow, they will get lucky.

The casting of lots to determine fates or award property has a long record in human history, and lotteries have been used for public and private purposes since antiquity. But state-sponsored lotteries that sell tickets with a fixed prize of cash or other goods or services are relatively recent. The first recorded public lotteries in the modern sense of the word were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for town fortifications and charity.

Historically, lotteries have been promoted by the state as a painless method of raising revenue. The idea of getting something for free appeals to both voters and politicians who have little appetite for raising taxes. And as the price of goods and services rises, state governments are more likely to seek out alternatives to direct taxation.

But there are problems with this approach. For starters, it tends to concentrate wealth in a few hands. A small percentage of the population – usually those who play a lot – is responsible for the majority of the ticket sales, while those who don’t play a lot or play only occasionally are hardly involved at all. In addition, the winners are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. The lottery also skews gender, with men playing more than women.

There is, of course, an ugly underbelly to the exercise: it dangles the prospect of instant riches to people who are already predisposed to chasing those kinds of dreams. It’s worth mentioning that the sliver of hope is not unique to the lottery; it exists in other forms of gambling, such as casinos and horse races, and of course, in everyday life.

The development of state lotteries has been a classic example of policy making being piecemeal and incremental, with the result that the overall effect is a complex web of influence and dependency. As lottery officials work to meet the demands of increasing revenue, they often neglect the effect on society as a whole. And while they may argue that they are promoting only a minor vice, their messages are coded to obscure the fact that lotteries promote a dangerous and growing form of gambling. In the end, we should question whether it makes sense for government to be in the business of promoting it at all.