The Dangers of Playing the Lottery


The lottery has become a ubiquitous fixture of modern American life, drawing billions in annual revenue and giving millions of people the hope of a better future. But it’s also an addictive form of gambling, with many people spending their entire incomes on tickets and sometimes even finding themselves worse off than they were before they won. And while making decisions and determining fates through the casting of lots has long been a practice with a rich history (including several instances in the Bible), lotteries as money-generating enterprises are more recent, dating back only about 500 years.

These days, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. The six that don’t — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada, home to Las Vegas — do not, for various reasons, allow the sale of state-sanctioned tickets.

While lottery games can seem like a product of the same culture that birthed Instagram and the Kardashians, they have deep roots in colonial America, where they were used to finance private ventures as well as public projects. For example, the foundations of Princeton and Columbia Universities were paid for by lottery money, and George Washington sponsored a lottery to raise funds to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In modern times, state governments have found lotteries to be an effective way to raise revenue and to promote a range of social services without the onerous taxes that would otherwise be necessary. Lottery revenues have allowed them to expand the number of social safety net programs, as well as support for public schools and local government.

But while there is broad public support for state lotteries, they tend to develop extensive specific constituencies: convenience store owners (lottery sales often increase during “lottery weeks”); lottery suppliers (who are heavy contributors to state political campaigns); teachers (in those states where lottery money is earmarked for education); and the general public (which has consistently voted in favor of lottery legislation).

While many people do play the lottery simply for the chance to win big, others feel it is their only way out of poverty. This type of player often spends a significant percentage of their income on tickets, and they may even lose their job as a result of chasing the dream of a better life.

In fact, studies show that people in low-income neighborhoods participate in the lottery at higher rates than those in middle- and high-income areas. Lottery players also have less formal educational backgrounds, and they are more likely to be black or Hispanic. While there are no definitive reasons why, it appears that the combination of these factors leads to a negative impact on their quality of life. Lottery players are also a lot more likely to gamble than those who don’t play. They’re more likely to buy scratch-off tickets and to spend more time in convenience stores, where they’re more likely to find winning numbers. And they’re more likely to purchase higher-ticket prizes, such as cars and vacations, than their more fiscally responsible counterparts.