The Lottery’s Ugly Underbelly

Lottery is a kind of gambling that involves predicting the numbers in a random drawing. It can be played in many ways, including instant-win scratch-off games and daily games such as “pick three or four.” In the United States, state-run lotteries are legal and widespread. But lottery play has an ugly underbelly. It can feed a pervasive sense of false hope, in which winning is seen as the only way to get ahead, or at least to avoid sinking into despair and failure.

The lottery has been around for a long time, and its roots go back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to divide land by lot, and the Roman emperors frequently gave away property and slaves as part of Saturnalia feasts. Later, colonists used lotteries to raise money for private and public projects. Among the most famous is the Academy Lottery, organized by George Washington in 1740, which financed Columbia and Princeton Universities.

In the United States, a growing number of states introduced state-run lotteries in the late twentieth century as a way to reduce taxes and encourage economic growth. Lotteries were particularly attractive to tax averse voters, since they allowed the state to keep a greater share of federal revenue than would be possible with other budgetary solutions.

A common criticism of the lottery is that it is a “tax on stupidity.” This argument implies that lottery players do not understand how unlikely they are to win, or that they simply don’t care. But Cohen writes that this view obscures the regressive nature of the tax. As he demonstrates, lottery sales rise as incomes decline and unemployment climbs; they increase even more when lottery advertising is targeted at poor communities.

Lottery prizes may be purely material: cash, cars and vacations are often the result of a draw. But they can also be symbolic of a lost national promise: that hard work and education will allow people to escape from poverty and achieve the American dream. The reality is that many of the people who play the lottery spend far more than they can afford to lose.

Lottery commissions often portray their products as entertainment, and they use marketing strategies that reinforce this message. These include promoting the idea that lottery playing is a social experience, and encouraging people to play in groups. Some critics have also pointed out that the disproportionate exposure to lottery advertising is harmful for black and Latino children, whose attendance at school tends to be lower. This has led some to argue that the lottery is a form of child abuse.