The Problems of the Lottery

Lottery, which involves drawing numbers in order to win a prize, has long been popular. It was common in the Low Countries in the fourteenth century, for example, where prizes were distributed to town fortifications and charity projects. In the early American colonies, lottery games helped fund such diverse public ventures as supplying a battery of guns for defense of Philadelphia and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston.

By their nature, lotteries are addictive. Everything about them, from the math behind the odds of winning to the design of the ticket, is designed to keep people playing and spending. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing—as long as the state doesn’t run the lottery at cross-purposes with the larger public interest, as seems to be happening now.

State lotteries start with a government-legislated monopoly; establish an agency or public corporation to manage them (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a cut of the profits); launch a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, as revenues grow, expand into new types of gambling—keno and video poker, for example—while simultaneously boosting promotional efforts. The result has been that the revenue streams have swelled until they reach what Cohen calls “a plateau.” This has produced two sets of problems.

One problem is that the lottery has become a very expensive form of entertainment. The second problem is that the lottery draws disproportionately from middle-income neighborhoods, while lower-income communities participate at a much smaller rate than their share of the population.