A lottery is a game in which players put their money into a pool and then draw numbers to determine the prize winners. Normally, a percentage of the money placed as stakes goes toward organizing and promoting the lottery and as profits to the lottery organizers or sponsors, leaving the rest available for the prize. The odds of winning are very low – one in a million on average. Yet people buy tickets every week, contributing billions of dollars to state budgets. In this article, sociologist and economist Dan Cohen explains the reasons why.
One major message pushed by lottery supporters is that lotteries are an effective way for states to expand their social safety net without burdening the middle class and working classes with higher taxes. This argument, Cohen writes, has a problem. Historically, it ignores that the lottery is not a painless form of taxation: It raises relatively little revenue and provides far from enough funding to significantly increase the size of state spending.
Moreover, it ignores that most of the money raised by lotteries ends up in the pockets of those who can least afford to gamble. It is no coincidence that ticket sales tend to rise when incomes fall and unemployment or poverty rates increase. It is also no coincidence that lottery advertising tends to be most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.