The Dangers of Playing the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which winners are selected at random. It is usually administered by governments and offers small prizes in the form of cash or merchandise. Historically, lotteries have also been used to raise funds for public works such as roads and bridges. In modern times, the lottery is an important source of income for state and local governments. However, despite its popularity, lottery players should be aware of the fact that it is not a foolproof way to get rich. Many people spend large sums on tickets for the chance to win big money, and as a result, end up losing far more than they gain.

Although lottery tickets have little in common with cigarettes or video games, they are not immune to the principles of marketing. From the advertising campaigns to the math behind the odds, everything about the lottery is designed to keep people buying. It is a form of addiction, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of playing the game for years on end.

While wealthy people do play the lottery (one Powerball jackpot was a quarter of a billion dollars), they purchase fewer tickets than the poor, and their purchases represent a smaller percentage of their incomes. The average player making fifty thousand dollars a year spends one percent of his or her income on tickets; those earning less than thirty thousand dollars spend thirteen per cent. The lottery thus contributes to the growing insecurity of the middle class, which can be seen in declining job security, rising health-care costs, and eroding pensions.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lotteries were common in colonial America, helping to finance the building of canals, roads, churches, schools, libraries, and colleges. They were also used to finance the militias in the war against the French and Indians. The early American states struggled to balance budgets in the wake of the war, and, as taxes climbed, they looked for ways to increase revenue without provoking an antitax electorate.

Lotteries became popular as a solution to this problem. They could be argued to not only bring in needed revenue, but also to help reduce the number of unemployed, since they would largely be conducted in areas where unemployment was highest. In addition, lottery advocates began to argue that a lottery would cover a single line item in the state budget, invariably a popular service such as education or veterans’ benefits.

These arguments grew more persuasive as the nineteen-sixties unfolded, and a crisis in state finances deepened. Faced with swelling population and inflation, many states found themselves unable to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. And, as Cohen explains, it was in this atmosphere that the lottery’s current incarnation was born. He writes that it began when the realization of how much money could be made in the gambling business collided with a budget crisis that spelled disaster for those who depended on state-funded social safety nets.