The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine fates and award prizes has a long record in human history. But when it’s used to make money, it takes on a particularly ugly underbelly.

In modern America, lotteries raise billions of dollars a year from people who buy tickets for drawings months or even years in the future and for whom winning is a matter of chance. Despite this, the public seems to like lotteries, with support from every state except North Dakota.

There are many reasons for this. The most obvious is that lottery games can be fun to play and can give the winner a modest but gratifying windfall. But they also carry a message that, even if you don’t win, you’ll feel good about doing your civic duty by supporting the lottery.

Most of the criticism of the lottery focuses on its advertising, which critics claim is misleading. It typically portrays the odds of winning as much higher than they really are; inflates the value of a prize that is paid out over time (with inflation dramatically eroding the value); and so on.

Another issue concerns the distribution of lottery players and their revenues. Studies suggest that the majority of lotto players and the bulk of revenues come from middle-class neighborhoods, with far fewer proportionally coming from high-income or low-income areas. Some analysts have argued that this is because lottery games appeal to people who are most likely to have the resources to participate, and to whom the game provides the illusion of opportunity.