The Dangers of Playing the Lottery


Across America, the lottery is a national pastime. Whether they play Powerball, the state games, or smaller local ones, more than 50 percent of Americans buy at least one ticket each year. But while the total number of players is relatively stable, the distribution of those players is not. The lottery draws a disproportionately large share of the country’s poorer, less-educated, and nonwhite population. These players are not a small minority: They represent 70 to 80 percent of the money spent on tickets.

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random and the people with those numbers win a prize. Various governments use lotteries to raise funds for everything from subsidized housing units to kindergarten placements. Lotteries also occur in sports and the stock market, where players pay to win prizes based on the luck of the draw.

The term “lottery” comes from the Latin word for a drawing of lots, but the earliest lotteries were not so formal. By the early 15th century, a number of towns in the Low Countries had started holding public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

These lotteries may have been more tame than those conducted in medieval Europe, but they were still gambling. Even so, the prevailing attitude toward them was that they were a benign way for states to raise money, rather than a sin tax on vices like alcohol and tobacco, which prompted governments to impose their own sin taxes.

In fact, many states promote their lotteries as a civic duty and a way to “save the children.” That message obscures the fact that people are spending an enormous amount of money on tickets, often on the basis of a small sliver of hope that they will be the one lucky enough to win the big jackpot.

Moreover, even those who do win the lottery can find themselves worse off than they were before winning. They may lose their jobs, their relationships, or a sense of security that they can count on money to protect them from the vagaries of life. And those who do not win are likely to continue buying tickets in the hopes that they will someday change their fortunes.

Lotteries may not be as sinful as other forms of gambling, but they do cause harm, and they are not a legitimate alternative to raising revenue by taxing vices that are harmful in the aggregate. Governments need to make their budget decisions based on facts, not myths. And the truth is that replacing taxes with lottery revenues hurts people, especially those in vulnerable groups. That’s why state policies on this issue deserve close scrutiny.