The Lottery and Social Inequality


Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America and it raises millions of dollars each year for state governments. It is also an activity that exposes people to the risks of addiction and carries with it an ugly underbelly of social inequality. It is a classic example of the way public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, without any overall overview, and that the interests of the general population are only intermittently taken into consideration by the officials in charge of lottery operations.

The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or destiny, and is likely a calque on Middle French loterie, from Lot, a verb meaning “to draw lots.” The first recorded public lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for various purposes, including town fortifications and helping the poor. The earliest record is from Ghent in 1445, but records from Bruges, Utrecht and elsewhere indicate that they may be even older.

In the immediate post-World War II period, when state lotteries began to gain popularity, states saw them as a way to expand their array of services without burdening their middle and working classes with especially onerous taxes. Lotteries became a major source of state revenue, and the pressure to continue expanding them was great.

Among the problems with this approach was that the lottery was not a very efficient way of raising large sums of money. It was expensive, prone to fraud and mismanagement, and could be easily exploited by nefarious operators. In addition, it became difficult for state officials to maintain their independence from the lottery industry and resist skewed political pressures.

Another problem was that the lottery tended to favor certain groups of people over others, and benefited them in disproportionately greater amounts than did the rest of the population. One study found that the vast majority of players and lottery revenues were from middle-income neighborhoods, while only a small proportion came from low-income areas. The same study found that those who played the daily numbers games, like Powerball and Mega Millions, spent a far greater percentage of their incomes than did those playing the scratch tickets.

Many experts believe that the regressive nature of lottery play can be corrected by changing the message. Instead of simply promoting the idea that lottery is fun, the message should be that it is a serious form of gambling and that it is important to avoid it. This strategy will probably not work very well, however, since committed gamblers will continue to buy lottery tickets and spend a significant portion of their incomes on them. In any case, it is not clear that the state should be in the business of promoting this vice, especially in an age when many people feel that they need to gamble in order to make ends meet.