The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America. People will spend up to $100 billion on tickets this year. State governments promote the games, saying they help raise money for education and other state services, even though the proceeds are tiny in the context of overall state budgets. They also imply that buying a ticket is a civic duty, the way that, say, buying a Snickers bar at the gas station is. In this way, lotteries play on the psychological and irrational impulses that drive all gambling.
The idea of winning a jackpot that would lift you out of poverty and transform your life is seductive, and it’s not just the rich who play. In a recent study, researchers found that almost half of all adults have gambled in the past year. Moreover, playing the lottery is associated with a variety of other risky behaviors, including substance abuse and depression. The study’s authors conclude that the public health cost of lottery gambling is high.
But a huge problem with the lottery isn’t just that it encourages poor behavior; it’s also how much it costs the taxpayer. Lottery commissions take advantage of the psychology of addiction, employing techniques familiar to marketers of cigarettes and video games. Everything from the look of the tickets to the math behind the prizes is designed to keep people hooked and spending their hard-earned dollars.
In the eighties, as Cohen explains, the popularity of lotteries grew along with a collapse in the social safety net: pensions and job security began to disappear, wages fell, and many children of working families found themselves worse off than their parents. Meanwhile, the national promise of a middle-class life, based on a combination of education and hard work, faded.
It was against this backdrop that state-sponsored lotteries became popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, helping finance town fortifications and aid the poor. The first recorded lotteries in the Low Countries dated from the fifteenth century; each ticket cost ten shillings (worth about $21 today) and served as a get-out-of-jail-free card, giving participants immunity from arrest for most crimes other than murder, treason, and piracy.
Lottery advocates of this era argued that since most people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits. This argument had its limits, but it provided moral cover for people who approved of the lottery for other reasons. It also helped obscure the fact that lotteries were often tangled up with the slave trade, and that, in some cases, winners actually bought human beings.