The Hidden Flaws of the Lottery

Lotteries are popular in the United States, where 37 states and the District of Columbia operate them. They are government-sponsored games where people pay a small amount to enter a drawing for prizes, like cash or goods, that are randomly selected by machines or other means. In some cases, winners choose their own numbers, while in others, computer programs select them for them. Regardless of how they are played, lottery profits help to fund a variety of public services. While the casting of lots to determine fates and land ownership has a long history in human culture—including several examples in the Bible—the modern use of the lottery as a source of government revenue dates back only to the nineteenth century.

Cohen focuses on the period after World War II, when growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state finances. As population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War increased, state budgets grew out of control. It became difficult for governments to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were highly unpopular with voters.

As a result, state officials began to promote lotteries as an easy and painless way for states to increase their tax revenues. These efforts were not successful at overcoming the strong moral objections of many white voters, however. These people worried that allowing state-run lotteries would attract Black numbers players, who they perceived as lazy and profligate, and that those players’ taxes—which they were unwilling to support in the first place—would be used to fund public services that white voters favored, such as better schools for rural black communities.

In order to woo these white voters, lottery proponents argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, it was fair for the state to take some of the profits. They also noted that, if the lottery was well-run, it would be a relatively inexpensive source of revenue compared to other sources of public income. In addition, they hoped that the popularity of the lottery would encourage other forms of illegal gambling to come into the open.

But the popularity of the lottery has obscured its deeper flaws. To begin with, it encourages irrational gambler behavior. It is not uncommon for players to develop quote-unquote systems that are completely unfounded in statistical reasoning, or to rely on horoscopes and lucky store names. Then, when they win, they may expect to receive their prize in a lump sum—a much smaller amount than the advertised jackpot, even before factoring in income taxes that will eat away at the one-time payment.

Lottery officials know this, and they work hard to keep the prize amounts up and the winnings down. They know that making the prizes seem attainable, or even desirable, is key to keeping gamblers coming back for more. Billboards, the design of tickets, and even how the numbers are arranged on the playslip all play into this.