The Dangers of Winning the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which tickets are sold and numbers are drawn for prizes. It’s often a way of raising money for the state or for charity, but it’s also an addictive form of gambling that can devastate families, even kill them. The chances of winning are very slim, but the cost can rack up over time. There are plenty of stories of lottery winners who find themselves in a worse place than they were before their lucky streak.

Throughout much of history, people have used lotteries to raise funds for everything from paving streets and building churches to constructing universities and even waging wars. In colonial America, the first lottery, in 1612, raised 29,000 pounds for the Virginia Company to help it establish its new colonies. Lottery profits also helped finance the construction of Harvard and Yale, as well as churches and public works projects. And, a few centuries later, George Washington sponsored a lottery to fund the construction of a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In the modern era, states have increasingly turned to lotteries to raise revenue for education and other services. As a result, lotteries have become the single largest source of state revenue. In the nineteen-sixties, when baby boomers began to hit college age, population growth and inflation began to strain state coffers. Adding to the problem, state governments had developed generous social safety nets that made it difficult to balance budgets. Raising taxes or cutting services was unpopular with voters, and a growing number of states began to rely on the lottery for cash.

The success of the lottery became, in part, a function of state governments’ ability to promote it and market it effectively. Massachusetts pioneered scratch-off games in 1975, and the “quick pick” numbers option was launched three years later. Moreover, lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction; everything about the lottery, from ad campaigns to the design of the tickets, is meant to keep players coming back for more.

Lotteries have also gained popularity because they are relatively easy for the state to regulate, especially when compared to other forms of gambling. Unlike casinos and racetracks, for example, they are not subject to federal regulation. And, in a political climate that has grown increasingly hostile to state funding for social programs, the lottery has been able to carve out an important niche as a tax-free alternative.

Defenders of the lottery like to argue that, since gamblers are going to spend their money anyway, it’s only fair for the state to pocket the profits. But, as Cohen shows, this argument is flawed in several ways. First, it ignores the fact that lottery profits are responsive to economic fluctuations. Lottery sales increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates climb. In addition, a great deal of lottery advertising is directed at poor, Black, and Latino neighborhoods. These communities, in turn, are disproportionately likely to be the recipients of welfare payments and government services.

The Dangers of Winning the Lottery
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