The Social Implications of a Lottery

A lottery is a process of allocating prizes to participants in an arrangement that relies on chance. The casting of lots is an ancient practice (there are references to it in the Old Testament, for example, and Roman emperors used it to give away land and slaves), and it became widespread as state governments took over arranging lotteries and using them to raise money for schools, hospitals, and other public works.

A key to a lottery’s popularity is that proceeds are seen as benefiting a particular public good—either education or, in some states, other government services that are popular and nonpartisan such as elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This argument has proven so effective that, even in times of recession, states have embraced lotteries and kept them operating.

Among the reasons for this is that many people have an inextricable impulse to gamble, as demonstrated by the huge billboards that flash the Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots. But there is a lot more to it than that, and lotteries are playing an important role in our age of inequality and limited social mobility.

The rich do play the lottery, of course—one of the largest-ever jackpots was won by three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut—but they buy fewer tickets than the poor, and their purchases are a smaller percentage of their income. Research shows that the wealthy are more likely to play scratch-off games, which tend to be cheaper, and that the poor favor daily numbers games, often referred to as “the little lotto.” The result is that, although some rich people do win the big jackpots, most of those who play are in the middle and lower classes.