Lottery Critics

Whether they’re in the mood for Powerball or scratch-off games, many Americans find themselves buying lottery tickets. In fact, about half of all adults say they play at least once a year. And yet a number of critics contend that lotteries do more than just give players a chance to win big—they also encourage bad financial habits, disproportionately target lower-income individuals and, in the long run, undermine public policy goals.

Until recently, state governments have promoted the idea of lotteries by stressing their value as painless sources of revenue—by contrast with taxes, which are perceived as an unpopular and regressive tax on the poor. While this argument continues to play a role, critics have focused more on specific features of lottery operations, including the problem of compulsive gambling and alleged regressive impact on low-income groups.

A key element of lottery success has been its ability to develop broad general support and to cultivate extensive specific constituencies. Among the former are convenience store operators (who make large donations to state political campaigns); lottery suppliers (whose executives often serve as state legislators); teachers (in states where lottery proceeds are earmarked for education); and, of course, lotteries’ main patrons: state residents.

But lotteries also rely on an implicit, and often unstated, message: Lotteries are a fun way to spend money, and if you’re lucky enough to win, you’ll use the prize to improve your life in some way. This message, coded in the slogans on lottery billboards, obscures the regressivity of the enterprise and reinforces irrational behavior by encouraging people to play despite the long odds of winning.

One of the reasons why so many people play the lottery is because they believe that, if only they could win, they’d be able to get out from under a mountain of debt. This kind of irrational behavior isn’t surprising, especially given the deep seated human impulse to gamble and to hope for the best.

Lotteries were widely used in colonial America to finance both private and public ventures, including roads, libraries, wharves, and churches. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to help defend Philadelphia from the British during the American Revolution. In the 18th century, it was common to find lotteries helping to fund colleges and universities, as well as canals and bridges. But even with these examples, the overwhelming majority of lottery revenues were used to award prizes based on pure chance. As a result, most of the winners were drawn from groups with low incomes and educational levels. Lottery supporters argue that the proceeds are then redistributed to the general population, but this claim is largely disingenuous.