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The Social Implications of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which a series of numbers are drawn, and the person who gets all six numbers correctly wins the jackpot. It is a form of gambling, but it is not, in the popular view, a particularly addictive one. Its ubiquity and popularity in the United States, however, raise questions about its social significance. Lotteries were once thought to be a morally legitimate way for the state to raise money for important public works. But today they appear to be more of a regressive tax on the poor and middle class, and are promoting an image of fairness that is at odds with reality.

The word “lottery” derives from the Dutch noun lotte, meaning “fate” or “chance.” In the 16th century, when it came to English, it may have been taken as a calque on the French word loterie, which itself was a diminutive of the Latin lotium, which means the casting of lots for a prize. It’s an ancient practice: The Old Testament has lots in it for everything from dividing land to appointing priests. The Romans had their own versions, including the distribution of prizes during Saturnalian festivities and the infamous “casting of lots” for the garments worn by Jesus after his crucifixion.

In the early nineteenth century, when American states began to adopt their own state-run lotteries, there were ethical concerns about them. But, as Cohen explains, these concerns were quickly dismissed by those who promoted them. They argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect some of the profits.

Moreover, as the nation’s tax revolt of the late twentieth century intensified, many states found themselves searching for ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were unpopular with voters. Lotteries proved to be a solution—even though the percentage of state revenue generated by these games was relatively small, a few hundred million dollars here and there would help keep the bills paid.

The message that lottery promoters are now primarily pushing, says Cohen, is that playing the lottery is fun. But this obscures the regressive nature of these games, and it doesn’t address the fact that those with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to play them, and that the money they spend on tickets represents a significant portion of their incomes. Moreover, the lottery is a form of racial discrimination in that it promotes an idea that blacks are more likely to win than whites, and that this is a good thing. For all these reasons, it’s time to rethink the lottery. We may be able to stop it, but only if we realize its true costs. And that starts with understanding what the numbers really mean. —By Peter Jackson and Brody Hill, The New York Times. Copyright 2019 The New York Times.