Lottery is the name given to a system of distribution of prizes in which tickets are sold and a drawing held for particular amounts. It’s a form of gambling that is often framed as a good thing because it raises money for state services. But if you dig beneath the hype, it’s actually not so great, at least for many people. The story of lottery is a tale about human nature and the limits of chance.
As long as humans have been playing games of chance, we’ve also been arguing about whether they are good or bad. And while the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, the introduction of lotteries as a source of state revenue is a recent development, even in the West.
In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery came to be mainly in response to a crisis of state funding. After World War II, states found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Both were largely unpopular with voters, especially in an economy that was growing rapidly and was already burdened by inflation and the cost of a war that had just ended.
State legislators decided to turn to the lottery for help. They passed laws creating a state monopoly, hired a government corporation to run it and began by selling a modest number of simple games. They then gradually added new games and grew the overall size of the program as demand grew and competition increased. As a result, they shifted their message from a claim that the lottery would float most of a state’s budget to one in which it would support only a single line item—almost always education, but sometimes veterans’ benefits or public parks and other amenities.
This new framing of the lottery allowed proponents to argue that a vote for the lottery was a vote for education or other state programs, and in most cases, this constituted an acceptable rationale for legalizing the game. And it is true that, for a while, the proceeds of the lottery were enough to keep some states out of trouble.
However, lottery revenues eventually dwindled and governments became less and less able to fund important programs. The problem is that when a governmental organization promotes gambling, there are bound to be negative consequences, especially for the poor and people who have problems with addiction.
This is why it’s important to understand the broader context of what lottery advertising does and doesn’t say. When you look at lottery ads, it’s easy to be misled. They tell a misleading and false story about how the lottery is a good thing, but they don’t address the fact that it has many negative effects on society. And in this case, those negative effects outweigh the benefits of the lottery’s income. For example, the lottery does a lot of harm to families, especially low-income families, who are disproportionately represented in lottery player numbers and revenues.