The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The lottery is an inextricable part of modern life. It helps finance public services, from units in subsidized housing to kindergarten placements. And it is a pillar of our culture, from the Kardashians to the Lightning Strikes fame of the NFL’s Jalen Richard. Yet the underlying ugly underbelly is that it dangles the promise of instant riches in a world where social mobility remains limited. People just plain like to gamble, and that’s fine. But there’s also a lot more going on here that’s problematic.

Historically, state lotteries have operated as classic raffles, in which a group of individuals pay money for a chance to win a prize if their numbers match those randomly drawn by a machine. Each bettor writes his or her name on a ticket and leaves it with the lottery organization, to be sifted through and possibly selected for winning in a drawing at some future time.

A percentage of the pool goes to costs, such as prizes and marketing, while a larger percentage typically is returned to bettors. The balance is typically struck by balancing the number of large prizes and the frequency of those prizes, with large jackpots driving ticket sales and providing free publicity on news websites and newscasts.

In the US, states have been introducing lotteries for more than half a century, and they have emerged as an important source of revenue for state government. Their evolution has been remarkably uniform, with the same arguments for and against adoption being made in virtually every state. The development of lotteries is an excellent example of a public policy being developed piecemeal and incrementally, with authority fragmented between the legislative and executive branches and often not involving any discussion of the overall public welfare.