The Dangers of the Lottery

The idea of choosing fates and winning big prizes through the casting of lots has a long history in human society. From the lottery of units in subsidized housing to kindergarten placements at public schools, a variety of state lotteries are available for those who pay for tickets and choose their numbers (or have machines do so).

The modern era of state lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964; since then, 37 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them. Almost all have followed a similar pattern: The state legislates its monopoly on the games; creates an agency or public corporation to run it; begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the game offerings.

In general, state lotteries have broad public support. The proceeds of the games are often earmarked for specific purposes, such as education; and, as Clotfelter and Cook point out, they typically do not suffer from the objective fiscal stress that sometimes prompts state government to raise taxes or cut other programs.

But the lottery is a form of gambling, and gambling has been linked to negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers. In addition, the lottery gives some people a false sense of hope that they are performing their civic duty or “helping the children” by purchasing a ticket. This is a dangerous message to send, particularly for those who live on assistance or have limited wages or incomes, as well as those with addictive personalities.