The Darker Side of the Lottery

The lottery is one of America’s most popular forms of gambling, and a major source of state revenue. Its defenders point out that it provides money for schools, parks, and other projects. They also argue that it is a “harmonious” way to raise funds without inflicting the pain of higher taxes or cutting state services. But there is a darker side to this argument. The lottery lures people with the promise of instant riches, and in an age of increasing inequality, many people feel that the lottery is their only shot at getting up the socioeconomic ladder.

The history of lotteries goes back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot; Roman emperors used lotteries as a way to give away property and slaves. In America, British colonists brought lotteries to the new world, even though there were strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, lotteries were widely used in England and the American colonies to finance a variety of public projects. They helped build town fortifications, fund the rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston, and supply weapons for the army. They were also a popular entertainment at dinner parties, where guests would receive tickets and have a drawing for prizes such as fancy dinnerware.

After the Civil War, states began to find it harder and harder to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. In the nineteen-sixties, when inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War accelerated, states resorted to the lottery to generate income. New Hampshire, a traditionally tax-averse state, approved the first modern state lottery in 1964; 13 others followed within years. As the economy slumped in the early seventies, and states struggled to pay for the welfare system and military expenditures, a wave of tax revolt swept across the country. In 1978, California passed Proposition 13, which cut property taxes by nearly sixty per cent; other states followed suit.

In this environment, lottery revenues soared and the argument that they were an equitable alternative to higher taxes fell by the wayside. People still gamble on the lottery, but the arguments about it being a harmless form of revenue are no longer valid.

The truth is that, in a nation where most people don’t have $400 for an emergency, the lottery has become a dangerous temptation. It’s tempting to believe that winning the lottery will allow you to buy a house, a car, or pay off your debt. But the truth is that the odds of winning are so low that it’s better to use the money you would spend on a ticket to start an emergency savings account or pay off your credit card debt.