The Ugly Underbelly of Lottery


Lottery is any competition in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to winners by random drawing. In general, the term “lottery” applies to any competition where a monetary prize is determined by chance, regardless of whether there are multiple stages to the contest or whether skill is involved in later phases. The history of lottery dates back centuries, with examples found in the Old Testament and Roman emperors’ distribution of land and slaves. In colonial America, it became a popular means of raising money for public usages, including paving streets, building wharves, and financing universities.

Today, state governments use lotteries to raise money for everything from schools to prison construction. In an anti-tax era, these games have become an important source of revenue, and pressures are constantly present to increase the size of the jackpot. However, research shows that the popularity of lotteries has little relationship to a state’s actual financial health, and the public is not well-informed about how much of their ticket purchases go to prize funds vs. the percentage that goes to state coffers.

While the message from state officials is that lotteries are a painless form of taxation, there’s an ugly underbelly to the exercise. As a social scientist who studies gambling and the psychology of risk-taking, I find it deeply troubling that so many people believe that they can change their lives with the flip of a coin, that they’re willing to gamble a large portion of their incomes with the hope of winning a little bit of comfort or prosperity.