The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

Many states hold lotteries to raise money, and their proceeds often go toward public services. But this type of gambling carries with it an ugly underbelly, one that can have a disproportionate impact on poor people. This is because it entices them to pay for the chance of winning huge prizes while ignoring the long odds against them.

The word lottery comes from the practice of drawing lots for goods and services, a tradition that dates back to ancient times. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, public lotteries helped build the new nation, in which banking and taxation systems were still developing. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held lotteries to retire debts, and the early public lotteries were known for offering prizes such as fancy dinnerware.

Since the 1970s, state-sponsored lotteries have capitalized on the extreme odds against winning and drawn large numbers of participants—and profits. In 2002, the 37 participating states reaped over $42 billion. Supporters praise the lottery as an easy revenue-raiser and a painless alternative to higher taxes. Opponents criticize it as a form of regressive taxation, one that hurts those least able to afford it.

While some people play for pure fun, others believe the lottery is their only hope of breaking out of a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity. Regardless of motivation, there is little doubt that the fervor of these games can be overwhelming for those who play them.