The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

For many people, the lottery is more than just a game. It’s a way to try and better their lives through an improbable combination of luck, skill, and irrational hope. The Huffington Post recently ran a piece that profiled an elderly couple from Michigan who spent their last few years trying to win the lottery, even as their health deteriorated. It’s a sad and telling tale, one that speaks to the ugly underbelly of lotteries—that feeling that whatever your chances, somebody has to win.

It was a need for revenue that drove states to enact lotteries in the first place, and a belief that gambling is inevitable so why not capture it. But this is a false and dangerous logic. Lotteries aren’t just capturing existing gambling; they’re creating new generations of gamblers.

When state officials decide to promote gambling, they’re running at cross-purposes with their public duties. The promotion of the lottery is not just a business strategy; it’s an ethical issue as well. It’s not only an unwise strategy in terms of the social costs of gambling (problem gamblers, poverty, etc.) but it’s also an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Lotteries are inherently expensive to operate, from the costs of organizing and promoting the games to the taxes and profits retained by state and sponsor agencies. Then there are the expenses related to the prizes themselves: they must be large enough to attract players but not so large that prize payments drain the revenue pool. This balance is difficult to strike, and the result has often been an expansion of games and advertising, with the resulting pressure on the prices that can be charged for tickets.

As a result, most lotteries now offer far more games than those that originally launched them; more games mean higher prices and the need for more promotional spending. The resulting costs can be crippling for many small and mid-sized states, which are often forced to limit their programs or cut staff.

While there are a number of reasons why the lottery system has become popular in so many countries, it seems to have become particularly prevalent in the United States. Perhaps this is due to a unique cultural context in which the notion of chance, especially a chance to get rich quickly, has a particular appeal. Or it may have something to do with the popularity of the anti-tax movement, which drove lawmakers to look for alternative sources of revenue. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that the lottery has created a massive market for gamblers and will continue to do so for a long time to come. The question is, are we okay with that? Are we ok with a government that promotes and profits from gambling? The answer to these questions will determine whether the lottery is in our best interest.