The Problems of the Lottery

The lottery is a classic pastime, spanning back centuries to the time when a draw of lots helped decide everything from who would get slaves to what the Bible says Jesus should wear after his Crucifixion. Yet even in its modern incarnation, lotteries raise many ethical concerns. They are inherently rigged, amoral, and often exploitative of the poor. They also fuel our national myth of meritocracy, which suggests that if you work hard enough, you can win anything—and then spend the rest of your life buying more stuff.

To a certain extent, people play the lottery because they plain old like to gamble, and that’s fine. But there’s a lot more going on. The big thing is that lotteries are dangling instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And they’re doing it in a way that’s designed to keep people hooked.

Lotteries grew popular in America, Cohen writes, when “growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding.” By the nineteen-sixties, state budgets were under strain from population growth and inflation. Balancing them meant raising taxes or cutting services—both options that were unpopular with voters.

New Hampshire was the first to adopt a state-run lottery in 1964, and dozens more followed suit, all seeking solutions that wouldn’t enrage their tax averse electorates. And that’s when the lottery began to become a major problem. As prize pools grew, they became newsworthy. So lottery marketers started to manipulate the odds of winning. They lifted prize caps to attract more players, then made it harder to hit the top prizes by adding more numbers (one-in-three-hundred-million odds turned into one-in-four-hundred-million).