The Truth About the Lottery


The casting of lots for the distribution of property, work or money is a practice of considerable antiquity. The modern lottery, as regulated by state law, is a form of gambling in which payment of a consideration (usually money) is made for the chance to receive a prize. A lottery may consist of a single drawing for a specific item or it can be a series of drawings over time for a specified amount of money or some other prize.

Despite their antiquity, contemporary lotteries are controversial. They have been criticized for encouraging bad behavior, such as gambling addiction, for their regressive character, for their role in robbing the poor of incomes that could have been better spent on necessities, and for their failure to promote the public interest in general. Nevertheless, since New Hampshire introduced the first modern state lottery in 1964, almost all states have adopted them.

One of the principal arguments used to support state lotteries is that they are a painless source of revenue, a way to pay for a wide array of services without having to increase taxes on ordinary citizens. This argument was especially popular during the post-World War II period, when states were able to expand their range of services without increasing taxation on the middle class and working classes.

In reality, however, lottery revenue has come to depend on the participation of lower-income citizens whose state budgets already are under strain. According to Clotfelter and Cook, a study published in the 1970s found that those playing the most traditional forms of lottery games (scratch tickets and daily numbers) come from neighborhoods with disproportionately low levels of wealth. In addition, their spending on tickets is often far greater than the average person’s.

Lottery advertising is based on the idea that people should play because it’s fun, and it’s certainly true that many players do enjoy the experience of scratching and buying tickets. But the message is coded to suggest that even if you lose, it’s okay because you did your civic duty and helped raise money for the state. This is a false and misleading message that obscures the regressive character of these games. The truth is that most people who play the lottery win very little money, and those who win spend a great deal of it. This is not the kind of society that we should be promoting. Instead, we should be focusing on how to help the poor and needy. We should also be focusing on ways to encourage people to use their incomes for other purposes.