In the United States, many people play the lottery weekly, contributing to billions of dollars in annual sales. They do so for a variety of reasons, from believing they are their ticket to a better life to the simple fact that they plain old like to gamble. However, while it is true that lotteries have a certain appeal to many people, the truth is that they also contribute to the inequality of our society by largely benefitting lower-income Americans. Lottery profits are made by a player base that is disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. This player base skews the odds in the favor of the lottery promoter, making winnings unlikely and encouraging more play.
The concept of a lottery is ancient, with roots in the Old Testament, the Roman Empire (Nero was said to be a big fan), and European colonialism. Lotteries were even used by the early American colonies to distribute land and slaves, despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. The modern lottery, though, began in the nineteen sixties, as growing awareness of the money to be made in the gambling business converged with a crisis in state funding. Many states, particularly those with generous social safety nets, had reached a point where they could no longer balance the budget without either raising taxes or cutting services.
State legislators saw that the only way to keep up was to turn to the lottery. They no longer argued that a state’s entire budget would be covered by lottery funds; instead, they began to sell the idea as a single line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or veterans’ benefits. This approach proved more successful with voters, who could easily support a lottery without voting against education or other important public services.
Regardless of the fact that lotteries are not as lucrative for state governments as they once were, they remain extremely popular with many people. This is in part due to the fact that there is still an element of the “inextricable human impulse” to gamble, but it is also because lottery advertising plays on the fears and hopes of those who do not feel they have enough security in their lives. Billboards claiming that you can win millions are a surefire way to draw in the unwary.
But while it is certainly true that winning a large sum of money can improve a person’s situation, it is also the case that the chances of doing so are incredibly low. And while some people will argue that the lottery is not a form of gambling because there are no games of chance, the truth is that there is nothing remotely honest about a game where prizes are awarded by chance. Whether that prize is a car, a trip to a exotic destination, or a house. There is no way to make that game fair. In the end, it’s all about money. And when the jackpot is up to a quarter of a billion dollars, that is all anyone will be thinking about.