Hundreds of millions of dollars are staked each week in lottery games across the United States, and it’s no exaggeration to say that for many people the game is an obsession. Some play it for fun, others believe that winning the lottery will improve their lives – or even save them from financial ruin. Whatever the motive, it’s clear that the odds of winning are stacked against players. In fact, it would be hard to design a more unfair gambling activity than the lottery.
Yet, despite these inauspicious odds, lotteries persist. They have been around for centuries – the biblical Book of Numbers, the Roman Saturnalia, and the earliest European colonization of America all saw a proliferation of lotteries. But today’s state-run lotteries are very different from the old-timey games of the past. In his new book, “Lottery: The Art of the Very Worst Gamble,” Steven Cohen writes that the modern lottery’s rise began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state finances. Thanks to soaring population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, many states could no longer balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were both highly unpopular with voters.
Lottery advocates argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, it made sense for governments to take a slice of the action. This was, in part, a response to long-standing ethical objections against gambling. But it was also a political strategy: By promoting the lottery as an altruistic alternative to taxation, state officials hoped that their opponents would be persuaded to support it for reasons other than its profits.
The problem with this strategy is that the lottery’s profits are only about two percent of a state’s total revenue. It’s nowhere near enough to allow a government to reduce its reliance on regressive taxes or provide a robust social safety net.
Despite this, state lawmakers have continued to promote the lottery as a way to boost state coffers. The result, Cohen writes, has been an explosion of state lotteries – now a $70 billion industry. It’s no surprise that many rich people, who spend a much lower percentage of their income on tickets than middle- and working-class players, buy into the idea that they’re helping to fund education or the arts. That’s the real reason why lotteries are overwhelmingly popular with white voters: They’re not just betting on a win, they’re supporting their community.