The Problems of the Lottery

A scheme for the distribution of prizes by lot, especially a gaming scheme in which tickets bearing particular numbers draw prizes and the other tickets are blanks.

In the fourteen-hundreds, the practice was common in the Low Countries, where citizens would buy tickets for drawings held weeks or even months in advance and hope to win houses, cars, and money. When states began to adopt lotteries in the nineteenth century, it became more of a public-service endeavor. People were told that lottery proceeds would help pay for education, paving streets, and other civic improvements.

As Cohen demonstrates, state lotteries quickly won broad public support and continued to expand. But they also started to generate problems. One problem stemmed from the fact that the popularity of lottery games coincided with a decline in state budgets. As unemployment rose and inflation rose, it became harder for states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting social services.

A second problem was that state lottery revenues tended to spike early on and then plateau. This led to a constant effort to introduce new games in an attempt to maintain or increase those revenues. It is not hard to understand why people become bored with games that require them to wait for the next drawing, especially when those games are advertised as “freedom.”

Lottery may be good for some people—those who manage to win the biggest jackpots, and the people who work to promote them—but it’s bad for others. Studies show that lotteries are disproportionately sold in poor neighborhoods, among minorities, and to people who have gambling addictions.