The lottery is a form of gambling whereby prizes are allocated by a process that relies entirely on chance. It is thus an arrangement that exposes participants to the dangers of compulsive gambling. It is an arrangement that also carries with it the risk of encouraging socially undesirable behaviours. And it is an arrangement that should be subject to the same kind of scrutiny as other forms of gambling.
Historically, state lotteries have followed similar patterns: the government legislates a monopoly for itself; it sets up a public agency to run the lottery (rather than licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); it begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure to generate additional revenues, progressively expands the scope and complexity of its offerings. The resulting proliferation of games has fueled complaints that the lottery promotes gambling addiction and other undesirable behaviours.
Lottery players are not a particularly discerning bunch. They buy their tickets with the naive belief that the odds are such that they should win at least occasionally. And when they do, they believe that their luck was a combination of their skill at picking numbers and the fact that they bought their ticket at the right time. It’s a belief that combines with the myth of meritocracy, whereby hard workers should have a better shot at success than those who are disadvantaged in one way or another.
But there is a bigger issue at play. Lotteries are dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. Billboards promoting mega-sized jackpots are designed to attract people’s attention and stimulate their spending. They work by tapping into our insatiable craving for the “good life” and by reinforcing the false idea that anyone can become rich through hard work and determination.
Despite these serious concerns, lotteries continue to enjoy widespread support from the general public. They are seen as an alternative to raising taxes that would hurt lower-income Americans, especially at a time when federal and state budgets are under severe strain. But it is a mistake to view the money that lotteries raise as a cure for these problems.
The vast majority of lottery dollars are spent on the game’s top prize. This reliance on big jackpots makes it very difficult to sustain a steady growth rate for the overall prize pool. Consequently, most states are finding it increasingly challenging to maintain the growth rates that characterized their lotteries in the immediate post-World War II period. This is prompting a new round of controversy about whether lotteries should be reshaped to encourage more sustainable growth, and about the social harms that they may cause.