Almost every state holds lotteries, where people can buy tickets to win big prizes ranging from free vacations to college tuition. Americans spend about $80 billion a year on the lottery, but many of them lose. The odds of winning are slim, but the game lures people with the promise of instant wealth. This incites addiction, and state lottery commissions use it to their advantage. They are not above deceiving and misleading, much like tobacco companies or video-game makers do, though they don’t do so under the guise of public service.
The lottery’s history dates back at least to the Roman Empire, when it was a popular way to dish out gifts at dinner parties. Modern lottery games, which often involve picking numbers from one to 50, can take on a variety of forms. Some require that participants pay a consideration, usually money, in order to be selected, while others do not.
The earliest recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century, when towns raised funds for town fortifications and poor relief through the sale of tickets. The word “lottery” is thought to be derived from Middle Dutch lotje (“drawing”) or, more likely, a calque on Middle French loterie (“action of drawing lots”).
In the nineteen sixties, growing awareness of the huge profits to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. State budgets were under pressure because of population growth, inflation, and war spending. It was difficult for states to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were extremely unpopular with voters.
Lotteries were seen as a way to raise revenue without incurring any of the political costs of increasing taxes or reducing services, and they quickly became popular. They also gave states a way to sell bonds without requiring the consent of the voters, which was crucial to financing large-scale projects.
Some states even lowered their income tax rates in order to make it easier for people to afford to play the lottery. Others used the revenue to boost education and social welfare programs. But Cohen argues that, even when states use the proceeds of the lottery to improve lives, they are still gambling with taxpayers’ money.
In addition to attracting addicts, the lottery attracts a disproportionate number of minorities and the elderly. Cohen writes that this is because lottery players are more likely to be lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. As a result, the lottery is an example of how government-run gambling exacerbates inequality in America.
Although people have a natural inclination to gamble, they should not be forced to do so for the benefit of government coffers. The lottery is just another form of legalized exploitation that, like slavery and apartheid, is part of our human condition. And like those injustices, it must be confronted and dismantled. Until then, we will continue to suffer from the consequences of this corrupt practice.