The Power of the Lottery


The lottery, the process by which prizes are allocated to individuals based on chance, is common in many areas of our society. The NBA, for example, holds a lottery every year to determine which teams will have the first opportunity to draft the best talent out of college. But a lottery isn’t just about winning big money, it’s also a process that dangles the promise of instant riches to people who would otherwise have a hard time finding their footing in life. In an age of inequality and limited social mobility, the lottery is a powerful force.

Proponents of the lottery argue that state-run lotteries allow governments to support critical services like education and infrastructure without raising taxes on the general population. They also provide a fun social experience and a way for people to fantasize about what they might do with the money they win. They add that tickets are relatively inexpensive, ranging from just a few dollars to no more than a few bucks, making them accessible to people with diverse incomes.

But the fact is, when states pay out a large percentage of ticket sales in prize money, that reduces the proportion of revenue available for things like education. In addition, research has shown that lotteries generally have regressive effects, with low-income Americans spending a disproportionate share of their income on tickets. Moreover, the evolution of a state’s lotteries is often done in a piecemeal manner with little to no overall policy oversight, leaving politicians with policies and dependent on revenues that they can’t easily change.