The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The lottery is a fixture in American society, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on it annually. Its popularity as a form of gambling is bolstered by the belief that it does good things for society, such as helping to save children from poverty. It also provides people with the chance to feel as if they are part of something grander than their own little world. Yet there is an ugly underbelly to this phenomenon, including allegations that it targets poorer individuals and increases opportunities for problem gamblers.

Regardless, there is no denying the success of state lotteries, which have grown from New Hampshire’s pioneering effort in 1964 to today’s 37 states and the District of Columbia. The underlying dynamics of their introduction and operation are remarkably similar across the country, as demonstrated by an examination of state lottery websites and related studies.

Lottery proceeds have a long record of use, including in ancient Rome for municipal repairs and in medieval Bruges to distribute charity money. Modern lotteries are typically marketed with the message that the funds they raise for state governments are earmarked for a specific public benefit, such as education. The effectiveness of this argument is hard to deny, but it is difficult to find any evidence that it relates to the actual fiscal conditions of state government budgets.

In fact, studies have found that state lotteries gain broad approval from the general population even when their overall fiscal health is sound. This suggests that the broader public benefits of lottery revenue are far more likely to be psychological than real.