The Appeal of the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay a small amount for a chance to win a large sum of money. Lottery proceeds are often used to support public services and programs. Some states even use them to finance infrastructure projects. Despite its popularity, the lottery is frequently criticized as an addictive form of gambling and a major contributor to crime and social problems. Others maintain that it is a fair way to distribute public resources in the face of a limited supply.

The history of lotteries spans centuries and many cultures. The Old Testament instructed Moses to draw lots for land and slaves; Roman emperors used them to give away property and soldiers; and the British colonists introduced state-run lotteries in America. In the modern era, lotteries began to proliferate in the nineteen-thirties, primarily as a tool for raising money for government purposes.

Today’s state-run lotteries are a complicated affair, but they generally follow similar patterns. A state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure from a desire for additional revenue, progressively expands the size and complexity of its offerings. The expansion of the lottery has been accompanied by a growing emphasis on advertising and an increasingly sophisticated attempt to manipulate the odds of winning.

Despite the growing complexity of state lotteries, they have never been more popular than they are now. In most states, about sixty percent of adults report playing at least once in a year. Playing frequency increases for people in their twenties and thirties, declines slightly for those in their forties and fifties, and then drops precipitously after the age of seventy. Men tend to play more than women.

In a time when governments are struggling with declining revenues, the appeal of the lottery is understandable. But it is also troubling, writes Cohen, because of the ways in which lottery money is used. State governments that once provided a robust social safety net find themselves faced with the unpalatable choice of raising taxes or cutting services, and they are seeking ways to balance their budgets without enraging an anti-tax electorate.

The solution for some states was to increase ticket prices and add new games, such as video poker, keno, and baccarat, while making jackpots seem bigger by changing the odds. These changes may have made the lottery more appealing, but they have not solved its underlying financial problems.

The ultimate source of the problem is that lottery players are chasing a dream that can never be realized, for God forbids covetousness, as the Bible teaches (Exodus 20:17). People who buy tickets to the lottery are hoping that their financial or personal troubles will disappear if they only hit the jackpot. Such hopes are unrealistic and, ultimately, deceitful. The real issue is that the lottery’s growth has come at a cost to the welfare of the poor and the well-being of society as a whole.