Is the Lottery Fueling an Unsustainable Trend?


In this age of inequality and limited social mobility, it’s no wonder people are drawn to lottery games. They’re cheap, fun and, in a way, an expression of a fundamental human impulse to gamble on life’s big moments. But there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes of state-run games, and some observers fear that they may be fueling an unsustainable trend.

When the game first became popular in the modern era, it was widely approved as an alternative to taxes. This was partly due to exigency: America, Cohen writes, had become “defined politically by an aversion to taxation,” and lotteries proved to be a painless source of revenue for everything from church construction to civil defense. The Continental Congress even used a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War.

But a growing number of people began to question the ethical propriety of governments selling tickets. After all, the arguments for lotteries were rooted in utilitarianism: If people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well take advantage of their willingness and reap the profits. In addition, a portion of the proceeds was usually set aside for poor relief and other public usages.

It was a compelling argument, and one that helped lottery games to grow. By the seventeenth century, they were common in the Netherlands, where players paid ten shillings—an expensive sum back then—to pick numbers that would be randomly spit out by machines. These tickets also served as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, as participants were immune to arrest for most crimes except murder and treason.

During the same period, a few states adopted their own lotteries and Americans began to see them as a harmless alternative to paying higher taxes. But despite these changes, critics of state-run gambling are still around. The game remains popular, and it is a major source of revenue for many states. And critics still worry that it preys on the economically disadvantaged, whose desire to gamble and dream of winning can have serious financial consequences.

Of course, the biggest concern is that winners of the big jackpots will spend all their money and end up bankrupt, divorced or suicidal. And there is no shortage of anecdotes to support these fears, including plenty of stories of lottery winners who went broke or ended up alienating their family and friends. For most people, however, the key is to play wisely and use proven lottery strategies. That means a good understanding of the odds and learning to spot a scam. It also helps to remember that money does not necessarily make you happy, and it is best used to provide joyous experiences for yourself and others.