The Dangers of Playing the Lottery

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, from Moses and the Old Testament to Roman emperors giving away slaves and land. The modern lottery, though, came to prominence in the nineteen-sixties, when rising income inequality and the cost of the Vietnam War began to sap state budgets. Balancing the books meant raising taxes or cutting services, and both were highly unpopular with voters. The solution, for many states, was to legalize the lottery.

As Cohen explains, this shift coincided with growing awareness of the tremendous profits to be made in gambling. State officials began to advertise the lottery as an easy, low-risk way for people to invest their money and become rich. As a result, lottery spending soared. In addition, lotteries have been marketed to attract poorer people, and advertising is often concentrated in communities that are disproportionately black or Latino.

Lotteries offer the hope of instant riches in an era of rising inequality and limited social mobility. But they also suck billions from people who could be saving for retirement, paying down debt, or sending their children to college. And the chances of winning are so small that even if you do win, you can quickly go bankrupt.

Moreover, people often use the proceeds of the lottery to buy goods that they might otherwise not be able to afford, which undermines the social purpose of the game. But, despite the obvious pitfalls, there is something irresistible about purchasing a ticket and dreaming of escaping your day-to-day existence. For some people, the chance to win big money is just too tempting to pass up. This is especially true for sports fans, who often spend enormous sums of money on lottery tickets in the hope of nabbing a top draft pick. In fact, Americans spend more than $80 Billion a year on lottery tickets.