The Problems With the Lottery System


In the United States, the lottery is a big business that contributes billions of dollars annually to state coffers. For many, it is a way to win a life-changing sum of money and escape poverty. For others, it’s a way to make a living by gambling. It is a gambler’s game, but one that is also often a psychological game. While some people do make a living from gambling, the majority of gamblers lose more than they win. They can, however, increase their odds of winning by educating themselves on the game and understanding how it works.

The practice of making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long history in human society, including a few instances in the Bible. But lotteries distributing prize money for material gain are more recent. They first appeared in the fourteenth century, and have been used to finance such projects as repairing the British Museum, building bridges, and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. Until the nineteen-sixties, when a swelling population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War started to drain state coffers, lotteries were an attractive source of revenue.

As a result, the modern era of state-run lotteries was launched in New Hampshire in 1964, with thirteen more states joining within years. Their wide appeal is due in part to their ability to elicit broad public support, as the proceeds are seen as benefiting a specific public good such as education. This argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when it can help to offset fears of tax increases and cutbacks in government services.

But this widespread popularity masks a number of important problems with the lottery system. As a general rule, the distribution of prizes in a lottery is predetermined, and is usually based on the total value of tickets sold, after expenses such as profit for the promoter and promotions are deducted. The prizes themselves are also typically fixed, and are often very large amounts of money or valuable items such as cars, homes, and vacations.

It is also worth noting that the evolution of state lotteries is a case study in how public policy is made and how it can be manipulated for private profits. The establishment of a lottery is often accomplished by piecemeal legislation with little oversight, and the policymakers who create it soon find themselves dependent on a revenue source that they can control only intermittently.

A second problem with the lottery is that it tends to reward a particular class of players, often those who can afford to purchase more tickets. These include convenience store operators, which reap a substantial share of the profits from the games; lottery suppliers, who have heavy contributions to state political campaigns; teachers in those states where lotteries are earmarked for education; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue. Consequently, the lottery reinforces a distorted social hierarchy that is at odds with democratic principles.

Posted in: Gambling