Lottery is the king of all gambling, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion annually on tickets. It’s a ubiquitous presence, one that’s widely considered to be a part of the American psyche. States promote it as a way to help raise revenue, a claim that’s hard to dispute. But just how meaningful that revenue is in the context of state budgets, and whether it’s worth people sacrificing their financial well-being to support it, is less clear.
While a lottery is a form of gambling, its success in the United States has largely been predicated on the fact that it’s perceived as a “good” activity, a virtuous activity that benefits society. This view is based on the premise that people buy lottery tickets because they enjoy the game and believe that, over time, they’ll win money. And that, in turn, will help them with their lives. Despite the fact that odds of winning are incredibly low, this is the message that’s conveyed to consumers.
But this is a false narrative. The truth is that most lottery players, as a group, are not wealthy. The data show that a large proportion of those who play the lottery come from middle-income neighborhoods, and that their wealth is not closely related to how much they spend on tickets. In addition, the bulk of state lottery revenues come from those same neighborhoods.
In fact, the lottery has become a way for middle-class families to fill their coffers, while also contributing to the broader socioeconomic disparities in America. Moreover, it’s no secret that the lottery is a hugely profitable enterprise for governments, with prizes typically reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The problem is that the profits are distributed unevenly.
Historically, lotteries have been used as a way to generate revenue for public projects. They date back to the ancient world, with the casting of lots being used to determine everything from property ownership to the fate of the ill-fated emperor Nero. In early colonial America, they played a significant role in financing both private and public ventures, including roads, canals, libraries, churches, colleges, and hospitals. Benjamin Franklin even held a lottery to raise funds for cannons for the defense of Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.
The modern-day lottery was born out of the need for states to raise revenue in a manner that would not provoke an anti-tax electorate. As a result, they were often marketed as an alternative to taxes, where people voluntarily spend their money to benefit the public good. The oldest-running lottery in the world is the Dutch Staatsloterij, established in 1726.
But, as the villagers in Old Man Warner’s town demonstrate, a lottery can be just as dangerous as a tax. Lotteries can be used to fund everything from ritual murder to town fortifications, and they may not be any more “tax-free” than any other kind of government revenue source. It’s a dynamic that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, and it should be a source of concern for anyone who cares about the future of democracy.