Is the Lottery Just a Gamble?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. It is most commonly seen as a way to raise money for public projects. People buy tickets for a small fee and win big prizes, such as cars or houses, if their numbers are drawn. Lotteries are most often run by state and national governments, but they can also be privately organized. In the United States, the Continental Congress held a lottery in 1776 to try to raise money for the American Revolution; it failed, but smaller private lotteries continued and helped build several American colleges.

There is something inextricable about human nature that makes people gamble, and that is why the lottery is such a popular fundraising method for everything from subsidized housing units to kindergarten placements. The slick advertising campaigns of the modern lottery dangle the promise of instant riches to people who might otherwise not play. And it works: lottery spending increases when incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates increase. Lottery ads are most heavily marketed in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

As a result, it is easy to imagine that the lottery is not just a form of gambling but a kind of social engineering that attempts to compensate for economic decline by bringing in new revenue. But Cohen says that this interpretation of the lottery is flawed. He writes that, instead, it is “a budgetary miracle, the chance for states to make revenues appear seemingly out of thin air.” It is a means for politicians to maintain services without raising taxes or cutting them, both of which are highly unpopular with voters.

In the nineteen-sixties, when state debts rose, unemployment grew, and inflation was high, it became increasingly difficult for governments to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. And while there was a growing awareness of the problems with gambling, there were also rumors that it could help to solve them.

Hence, in the nineteen-sixties, when the lottery first came to America, the government and its licensed promoters argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so why not let the government take some of the profits? This argument may have seemed persuasive to many people, but it did not address the larger ethical issues that arose. Moreover, it did not acknowledge that the lottery was designed to serve other political purposes. In addition to its obvious appeal to greed, the lottery was a way for states to circumvent long-standing moral objections to gambling.