The Lottery and Its Critics


A lottery is a game in which participants pay money for a chance to win prizes. The prizes may be goods or services. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Roman Empire. They were a form of entertainment at dinner parties, with ticket holders being awarded prize items like fancy dinnerware. More recently, lotteries have become a popular way to distribute items in a wide variety of fields, from housing units in subsidized apartment blocks to kindergarten placements at reputable public schools. Most of these lotteries are run by governments. Some are based on the distribution of items in a fixed number of tiers, while others are based on the random selection of players from among a large group. The latter are often called financial lotteries because the prize consists of cash or goods or services with a monetary value.

The modern state-run lottery, Cohen writes, became a popular fixture in America during the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling coincided with a crisis in state funding. With inflation and war expenses soaring, many states were finding it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—a prospect that was unpopular with voters.

As a result, politicians in these states found it easy to sell the lottery as a budget miracle that could keep existing programs running without hiking taxes and saving them from being punished at the polls. The state legislature legislated a monopoly for the lottery; established a public agency or corporation to manage it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); started operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, under pressure for additional revenues, grew the lottery into a complex enterprise that included scratch-off tickets, video poker, keno, and more.

While the lottery has become an important source of revenue for many state governments, it is not without controversy. Critics of the lottery have a variety of complaints, from its perceived reliance on addictive behavior to its alleged regressive effect on lower-income people. But the most common criticism concerns the lottery’s inability to fulfill its original promise: that it can offer a chance for instant wealth to those who purchase a ticket.

A common criticism of the lottery is that it relies on addictive behavior, encouraging players to buy more tickets by dangling the promise of instant riches. In reality, however, lottery players are well aware of the odds of winning. They read the advertisements and the billboards promoting the huge jackpots. They know that their chances of winning are very slim, but they also believe that if they just play enough, eventually they’ll hit the big one. Hence, they continue to purchase tickets—and spend billions of dollars annually doing so. This is not irrational behavior, but it is not rational either. Lottery organizers understand this, and their marketing campaigns are designed to keep people playing.