The Politics of the Lottery

For many people, buying a lottery ticket is more than just a game of chance. It’s a way to cling to hope, that elusive dream that someday someone will be luckier than they are. That dream embodies the national promise of upward mobility, that hard work and education will make you richer than your parents or grandparents. But this promise has been slowly fading since the nineteen-seventies, as income inequality has widened, health-care costs have soared and pensions and job security have disappeared. In this landscape, the lottery offers the only prospect of wealth that most people can see.

Almost every state has now established a lottery. Some have a single prize of tens of millions of dollars; others have multiple prizes of lesser amounts, such as automobiles or vacations. These games are in many ways the same as those held in England and Europe in the early modern period, where they were used to raise funds for a variety of purposes from public works to building colleges. They became especially popular in America, where they helped to finance the building of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, William and Mary and other prominent institutions.

But the lottery is not just a source of revenue; it is also an instrument of control and influence. State officials use it to shape the culture of their states, influencing how people think about gambling and its role in society. They also control how much money is spent on advertising, and they use a series of psychological tricks designed to keep players hooked. It is a strategy similar to those employed by video-game manufacturers or tobacco companies, but one that is rarely discussed in the context of government policy.

While it is true that many states have a broader public policy about gambling and its role in society, it is also the case that most of these policies are developed piecemeal. Few, if any, have a coherent gambling policy, and even less of a lottery policy. Instead, most of the decisions about lottery are made by local lawmakers or by agencies tasked with regulating gambling and lotteries. And these local decisions are often driven by what is most lucrative, not what is best for the community.

As the popularity of lotteries has risen, so have the political battles over them. Supporters have stopped arguing that the lottery would float an entire state’s budget and have narrowed their argument to a specific line item that is popular and nonpartisan—usually education, but sometimes elder care, public parks or aid to veterans. This strategy allows them to portray a vote for the lottery as a vote for this specific service and to avoid being accused of supporting gambling. But the tactics are still the same. Every detail of the lottery, from its ad campaigns to the math behind the odds of winning, is geared toward keeping players hooked and spending more and more money. As a result, the lottery is increasingly becoming an inextricable part of the American economy.