The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The lottery is an example of a popular and largely unrestricted form of gambling. Lotteries involve the drawing of numbers or symbols for a prize, usually cash. While the casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long history (including several instances in the Bible), it is only relatively recently that lotteries have been used for material gain.

In modern times, lottery is commonly conducted by means of a computer system or paper tickets. The system may record the identities of bettors, the amounts staked by each, and the numbers or symbols on which each bet was placed. The bettors may sign their names or deposit the tickets in the lottery organization, where they will be reshuffled and selected in a drawing to determine the winners. Many modern lotteries are run by private firms, but some states and nations maintain their own state-owned organizations.

While lotteries are often marketed as a harmless form of entertainment, they can be extremely dangerous. They create the illusion that there is a reasonable chance of winning, and they also encourage people to covet money and other goods. God forbids covetousness, and the lottery, by dangling the promise of instant wealth, is a temptation that violates the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The majority of lottery players are low-income, uneducated, and nonwhite, and as a group they spend far more on the lottery than higher-income Americans do. They are also more likely to gamble on professional sports and play games of chance like poker and blackjack. The ugly underbelly of the lottery is that it gives poor people a false sense of hope, and it encourages the belief that there is some meritocratic path up the social ladder that even they can take, if they are lucky enough to win the lottery.

Lottery officials have moved away from the message that playing is just fun and now emphasize two messages primarily. The first is that lottery revenues are a painless tax and the second is that the experience of scratching a ticket is enjoyable. Both of these messages obscure the fact that the lottery is a regressive tax and that most lottery participants are committed gamblers who spend a large percentage of their income on tickets.

Lotteries are a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. Each state legislates its own monopoly; establishes its own agency or public corporation to operate the lottery; starts with a small number of relatively simple games; and then, due to constant pressure for additional revenue, gradually expands its scope and complexity. This process is driven by both voters who want their states to spend more and politicians who view lotteries as a painless way to raise taxes. As a result, few states have a coherent “lottery policy.”