Is the Lottery Good For Society?

In a country where many people play the lottery regularly, and it contributes billions in revenue annually, the question of what the exercise is really doing to society has to be asked. In one sense, it’s simply an old-fashioned form of gambling, a way for some people to waste a portion of their income on a long shot that will never pay off. But, at a deeper level, lotteries are also playing with people’s emotions and dangling a mirage of instant wealth that stokes the flames of hope in this age of inequality and limited social mobility.

Cohen’s article begins by laying out the basic elements of any lottery arrangement: a bettor writes his name and the amount staked on a ticket, which is then deposited with the organization responsible for the draw, along with all other tickets. A slew of expenses, from organizing and promoting the lottery to paying out prizes, must then be deducted from this pool, and a percentage normally goes as revenues and profits to the sponsoring state or corporation. A final decision must be made as to the proportion of the total available to the winners, with some prize pools focusing on a few large prizes and others aiming for more frequent smaller ones.

While the casting of lots has a long record in human history, with numerous instances in the Bible, it’s only more recently that states began adopting lotteries to raise money for public purposes. In the immediate post-World War II period, with expanding welfare programs and generous social safety nets, these activities were often supported by a broad electoral base. But by the nineteen-sixties, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War had begun to erode that support, and, as states searched for ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, they turned to the lottery.

The result was that, with a few notable exceptions, almost every state now has a lottery. Its adoption and the evolution of its operations have followed remarkably similar patterns, so that debates about whether or not to hold it shift, over time, to more specific features of the lottery’s operation, such as the effect on compulsive gamblers and the alleged regressive impact on low-income populations.

State lottery officials have a difficult job to do. They must win continued public approval for an enterprise that is both expensive and fraught with pitfalls, while at the same time preserving the popular perception that it is in service to the general public good. And this, despite the fact that studies have shown that a lottery’s popularity is not linked to its benevolent effects on state finances.