The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

Gambling Nov 12, 2023

A lottery is a game in which people pay money for a chance to win something. Typically, this involves picking numbers from a set of balls that range from one to 50 (or more). Almost all states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. The prizes vary widely. They can be anything from cash to expensive items. But the most common prize is a big-ticket item like a car or home.

People have been playing lotteries for thousands of years. The earliest records date back to the Roman Empire, where they were used as a form of entertainment at dinner parties and to distribute gifts during Saturnalian celebrations. The earliest modern-style lotteries, however, were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, with prizes consisting of town fortifications and help for the poor.

The lottery rose to prominence in the nineteen-sixties, as the nation’s postwar prosperity began to wane and state government faced a funding crisis that was made worse by inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. Many states, especially those with generous social safety nets, could not balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were deeply unpopular with voters. The lottery was promoted as a way to solve the problem by offering a big jackpot that would draw in affluent people who could afford to pay for tickets.

In the first decades of the lottery’s existence, many advocates argued that it would not only bring in big profits but also cut government spending. This strategy, which Cohen writes was “false on its face,” has largely failed. Moreover, it gave rise to what Cohen calls the “ugly underbelly” of the lottery: “the notion that there is an inextricable link between lottery participation and social inequality.”

It was counterintuitive but true: The bigger the jackpot, the more people wanted to play. That’s why lottery officials started making the prizes grow to seemingly newsworthy proportions, and why they encouraged a “frenzied speculation” about when and where to buy tickets.

As the jackpots grew, the odds of winning were shrinking, too. To the average person, the difference between one-in-three million and one-in-three-hundred-million didn’t make much of a difference. But the higher the odds, the better the publicity, and the more money was raised.

By the early nineties, with the jackpots reaching staggering levels, advocates had to rethink their strategy. Instead of arguing that the lottery would float the entire state budget, they began to emphasize a single line item that was popular and nonpartisan—often education or veterans’ care. This approach allowed them to argue that a vote for the lottery was a vote for veterans; a vote against it was a vote against education. This helped the lottery to gain traction among white voters. However, it did not prevent them from losing support in the black community, where the lottery’s success was a source of bitterness and resentment. Many black voters, in fact, opposed the lottery, because they saw it as a government scheme to steal their money and their votes.