When someone enters a lottery, they’re buying a ticket for a chance to win something. The prize can be anything, from kindergarten admission at a good school to a unit in a subsidized housing complex. It could also be a seat on a space shuttle or the latest vaccine for an infectious disease. Whether the lottery is run by a philanthropic organization or a government, it has one thing in common: people want to participate. The idea behind the lottery is that a fair process will distribute scarce resources evenly. But in practice, that’s not always the case. In the last fifty years, lotteries have become a staple in many states, especially in the South and West. This is a phenomenon that stems from a combination of factors, including a late-twentieth-century tax revolt and a state legislature’s search for new sources of revenue that won’t upset the antitax electorate.
State lotteries are often marketed as a way to help struggling families. They promise that the proceeds will help a family get out of debt or buy a home. They’re also advertised as a safe and secure way to invest money. But these promises are misleading.
In fact, state lotteries have been proven to be just as dangerous for low-income families as payday loans or credit cards. In addition, they tend to increase rather than decrease the amount of gambling that people do. Furthermore, state lotteries aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. They use everything from advertising campaigns to the design of their tickets to keep players coming back for more. It’s not that different from the tactics used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers, but this time it’s sanctioned by the state.
Initially, state lottery advocates sold their new product as a silver bullet that would float most of the state budget without raising taxes. When that promise proved false, however, they began arguing that lottery revenues would pay for a single line item—invariably, education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. This narrower argument made the product much more palatable to voters.
In the end, though, the real problem with lotteries is that they allow state governments to profit off of a product that’s addictive and harmful to society. It is this dynamic, more than any specific state’s fiscal conditions, that makes the lottery so dangerous.