Throughout the world, lotteries draw billions of dollars in revenue each week. Some people play for fun, but others see it as their ticket to a better life. The odds of winning are low, but some people do win. What lottery players often don’t realize is that their money is being funneled into the pockets of a small number of big winners.
The term “lottery” comes from the Dutch word for “fate,” or “lot.” As early as the 17th century, the Netherlands began organizing state-sponsored lotteries, which were widely hailed as a painless form of taxation. Since then, states and countries around the world have developed lotteries in order to raise funds for a variety of public purposes, from education to infrastructure projects.
Advocates of the lottery argue that it enables governments to provide social welfare programs without burdening working-class and middle-class taxpayers with higher taxes. But this argument is flawed. While the lottery may provide some benefits to some states, it doesn’t generate enough money to significantly bolster government spending or offset reductions in other taxes.
One message that lottery supporters have long pushed is that lotteries are just a “tax on the stupid.” While it’s true that many people do not understand how unlikely it is to win, this explanation obscures the fact that the lottery is highly regressive and heavily promoted in communities with high concentrations of poverty and black and Latino populations. Lottery products are also sold at places like check-cashing stores, dollar generals and gas stations, where people can pick up tickets on the way to work or school. And although some rich people do play, those who buy the most tickets tend to be poorer—people who spend an average of a tenth of their annual income on tickets.
While there’s an inextricable human impulse to gamble, the true story of lotteries is much more complex than that. As the writer David Cohen explains, their popularity soared in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, coinciding with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. As income inequality widened, pensions and job security declined, health-care costs rose and unemployment grew, the national promise that hard work and education would guarantee economic mobility ceased to be true for most families.