The Dark Side of the Lottery

The lottery raises billions of dollars each year and, for some people, represents their only shot at a better life. But the odds are low, and the game should be treated more like a fun pastime than a path to wealth.

Making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has an ancient record (Nero was a fan), but the first recorded public lotteries to distribute prizes in the form of money appeared in the Low Countries in the 15th century to fund town fortifications and help the poor. The games gained broader appeal as states cast about for ways to maintain existing services without hiking taxes, a prospect that would enrage an increasingly anti-tax electorate.

State officials saw the popularity of lotteries as a kind of budgetary miracle, a way to produce revenue seemingly out of thin air, without raising taxes and provoking an outpouring of angry voters. And so, for a time, they worked.

Some people fantasize about what they’d do with a jackpot: instant spending sprees, luxury vacations, maybe a new house. Others think about paying off mortgages and student loans. And still others might put the money in a variety of savings and investment accounts and live off interest.

But as the lottery becomes a mainstay of American life, its dark side has emerged. Problems include compulsive gambling and the alleged regressive effect on lower-income groups, issues that were not foreseen when state officials established their lotteries. This is because public policy in the lottery industry is often made piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight or accountability.