The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of lottery. It’s not just about people plain old like to gamble; there’s a big ugly underbelly here, too, that’s dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch, via Middle French loterie and possibly a calque on Middle Dutch lotinge, “action of drawing lots.” The first state-sponsored lotteries in Europe took place in the 15th century; the English version of the word was printed in 1609. Lottery is a form of gambling in which people try to guess numbers, letters, or symbols drawn at random by an impartial judge. Prizes are usually cash or goods.

Many states rely on the lottery to raise money for a wide variety of public uses, including education, infrastructure, and social services. The lottery is a popular way for governments to raise funds without angering voters, because it’s perceived as a painless tax. The lottery’s popularity has exploded since it became legal in 1964, and spending has soared. Many people who don’t normally gamble play the lottery, especially if it has large jackpots.

The lottery is regressive, meaning the poor spend more of their incomes on tickets. They are also less likely to have savings or credit cards, which would allow them to cover an emergency expense. The regressive nature of the lottery also obscures its broader effects on society, since it takes away money that could be used for entrepreneurship, innovation, or other forms of social mobility.