The Problems of the Lottery

The casting of lots to decide on fates and fortunes has a long record in human history, with several references in the Bible. The lottery as a means to distribute large amounts of money for material gain, however, is much more recent, with the first public lotteries being recorded in the Low Countries around 1466, when towns used them to raise funds for municipal repairs and to help poor residents. Lottery revenues have grown rapidly since their inception. In most states, lottery play is widespread and a majority of adults say they have played. The lottery has become the source of funding for all sorts of public projects, from libraries and schools to highways, canals, bridges, and museums. It has also become a major source of tax revenue for state governments.

In this age of economic inequality and limited social mobility, people are drawn to the fantasy of instant riches in a way that has never been seen before. And so the lottery becomes the favored form of gambling in our society. The irony is that this obsession with unimaginable wealth coincided with a decline in the real economic security of working Americans. Over the course of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the income gap widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs skyrocketed, and the old promise that hard work and education would enable children to live better lives than their parents lost its sheen.

Like all forms of gambling, the lottery has its problems. Some states are worried about a negative impact on the poor and problem gamblers. Others worry about the effect on the economy and society at large. And most of all, they worry that lottery money is being diverted from other worthy public projects.

A few states have attempted to limit the role of the lottery by requiring it to use a small percentage of its profits for education. But even with this restriction, the lottery has proved to be a potent political force. In every state with a lottery, its advocates have found some way to claim that the lottery is a silver bullet that will float a specific line item in the budget–usually education but sometimes veterans’ benefits or public parks.

In spite of the fact that most people know they are unlikely to win, many continue to play the lottery, spending billions of dollars each year. Many of them believe that the lottery is their last chance at a better life. But the truth is that there are plenty of ways to make more money without taking a chance on the lottery. Instead of buying tickets, try using the money to build an emergency fund or pay off credit-card debt. This will help you avoid the temptation to spend more than you can afford to lose. And, if you do happen to win, remember that the tax burden on winnings can be quite steep. So have fun and good luck! This article was written by several contributors.