The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular and often successful way for states to raise money for a variety of projects, including roads and schools. It can be a fun and social exercise for millions of people, as well as a source of hope that somebody—someday—will win the big prize. However, there’s an ugly underbelly to the lottery that we don’t talk much about. It’s the belief that winning the lottery is a sign of God’s favor. In a world of diminishing economic prospects, winning the lottery can be seen as a way up and out. But that hope can also lead to a vicious cycle of addiction and unmanageable debt. It’s the sort of thing that makes some people question whether lottery promotion is really a good thing.

Lotteries are generally considered to be a legitimate and desirable method of raising money for state purposes because they involve a relatively small percentage of the population paying a modest price for the chance to receive a significant sum of money. This is contrasted with the more common method of raising funds for government purposes such as education or infrastructure by a broad-based tax, which can result in higher taxes for everyone and can lead to political conflict.

Since their introduction, state lotteries have been popular with voters. Some state governments have even made it a part of their annual budgets. While the argument that lotteries provide “painless” revenue—with players voluntarily spending their own money to help the public—has won substantial support, critics point out that many of these same revenues are used for things voters may not want states to spend on, such as welfare programs and education.

For example, in the case of Massachusetts, lottery money is earmarked for public colleges. This gives a distinctly ideological veneer to the activity, making it a popular choice for many liberals. Other critics, however, argue that this use of lottery revenues is simply a tactic to disguise state gambling profits.

Cohen’s narrative begins in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness about how much money could be made by state-run gambling converged with a crisis in public finances. As the costs of health care, social security, and the Vietnam War rose, balancing the state budget became impossible without raising taxes or cutting services, which were deeply unpopular with voters.

The state responded by offering the first modern lottery in America, a nationwide game that raised more than $3 billion for education in its first decade of operation. The success of this new form of gambling was quickly replicated by other states, and today the vast majority of American states offer a lottery. In addition to their widespread appeal, lottery proceeds have become a highly effective tool for fundraising in all kinds of organizations. The popularity of lotteries has given rise to a wide range of specific constituencies, from convenience store operators to lottery suppliers to teachers, who frequently contribute heavily to lottery-related state political campaigns.