The Truth About the Lottery

In 2021, Americans spent upward of $100 billion on lottery tickets—making it the country’s most popular form of gambling. But lotteries are not just another money grab: They also contribute to a culture that devalues women, minorities, and the poor, while fostering irrational behaviors. In the end, we all pay.

Lottery exemplifies the role that scapegoats play in a culture: It is a mechanism that allows societies to mark their limits by punishing members who violate norms. In this case, the scapegoat is Tessie Delacroix—an unwed mother who can’t produce children. But the story of how she became a scapegoat also speaks to the role that luck plays in our lives and the way in which we conflate the concept of chance with destiny.

The notion of distributing goods and land by lot dates back centuries, with the Old Testament instructing Moses to take a census of Israel and divide up the land by lots. Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property. And in the early 1700s, colonists in the United States voted to establish a public lottery to help fund the Continental Congress during the American Revolution.

Since then, lotteries have become a staple of state governments and private businesses. In the immediate post-World War II period, they enabled states to expand their social safety nets without imposing onerous taxes on middle and working classes. But the popularity of lotteries began to wane in the 1960s. By the 1970s, inflation was eroding their profitability and they fell out of favor with Americans.

Today, a majority of states offer a state-sponsored lottery. The prizes vary, but the games are very similar: Players buy tickets for a drawing in which they have a chance to win large sums of money or goods. A portion of the proceeds are paid out as prizes, while the rest is returned to state coffers as revenue. State governments then use that money to support a variety of programs, from education to prisons.

But it’s worth noting that the vast majority of lottery winners lose more than they win. In fact, according to one study, people who win the lottery tend to go bankrupt within a couple of years. And while lottery advertisements imply that everyone can afford to spend $50 or $100 a week, the reality is far more complex: Most of those who play are low-income and less educated, while a disproportionate number are nonwhite and male.

While it’s easy to see how lottery revenue can help support state programs, the truth is that lottery profits are a hidden tax on consumers. Unlike traditional income taxes, which are clearly stated on tax forms and paychecks, lottery revenues are buried in the fine print of state budgets. And that’s an issue that needs to be discussed. If we’re going to keep lotteries, it’s important that we make them as transparent as possible to the public. If we don’t, we’re in danger of losing them altogether.