The Problem With the Lottery

Nov 9, 2023 Gambling

There’s an inextricable human desire to gamble that lottery players exploit. But the bigger issue is what it’s actually doing to people. It’s dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. Super-sized jackpots help drive ticket sales, as do shrewd promotional tactics like increasing the frequency of drawing the top prize.

Lotteries may seem like a harmless pastime, but they’re also an important source of state revenue. During the post-World War II period, they allowed states to expand their social safety nets without putting too much of a burden on middle and working classes. But they’ve become less able to do that now, and that’s largely because of inflation.

The word “lottery” dates back to the fourteenth century, when the Low Countries held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. They spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first in 1567. And in colonial America, the lottery was widely used to finance both private and public ventures. Lotteries helped pay for roads, libraries, churches, and colleges (including Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and William and Mary), as well as canals and bridges.

Modern lotteries often use a combination of strategies to ensure fairness. For example, they may offer multiple ways to pick numbers—including a quick-pick option in which the computer randomly selects the numbers for you. Or they may allow you to mark a box or section on the playslip to signify that you accept whatever set of numbers the computer chooses for you.