The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery

A game in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random; often sponsored by a state as a means of raising funds. Occasionally, used as a general noun:

The lottery has long been a source of fascination for many people. It can be a trippy exercise, even if your only hope of winning is to buy a few tickets and take the smallest chance that you will be the one to hit it big. But if you’re the lucky few who do win, there’s a dark underbelly that can start to rear its ugly head, writes Les Bernal at The Huffington Post. It turns out that the state lottery’s business model relies heavily on a small group of “super users.” These are the people who buy thousands of tickets at a time, turning playing the lottery into their full-time jobs and skewing the overall odds. Bernal notes that a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that lotteries generate 70 to 80 percent of their revenues from just 10 percent of players.

While many states have their own private lotteries, the modern state-sponsored lottery started with New Hampshire in 1964. Since then, most states have followed a similar path: legislate a monopoly for the lottery; establish a public agency or corporation to run it (rather than license a private firm in return for a cut of profits); launch with a modest number of relatively simple games; and – due to constant pressure for increased revenue – gradually expand its offerings in terms of games and complexity.

Lotteries have long been a common way to distribute goods and money. Historically, they’ve been used for everything from land and slaves to public works projects such as canals, roads, bridges, schools, colleges, churches, libraries, and more. In colonial America, more than 200 lotteries operated between 1744 and 1776 to finance both private and public ventures. Benjamin Franklin, for example, helped sponsor a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

Despite their popularity, lotteries have been controversial. They’re considered a form of gambling, and critics charge that they’re addictive and promote foolish risk-taking. Others argue that state-sponsored lotteries are a useful way to fund important public programs without imposing too much additional taxes on lower-income households.

Nevertheless, most states continue to support their lotteries, and the majority of adults report playing them at least once per year. Moreover, the lottery continues to generate significant income for state governments, helping to offset budgetary shortfalls and provide crucial funding for public services like education and health care. But the controversies surrounding the lottery aren’t likely to fade away any time soon. And, as the industry continues to evolve, it’s critical for policymakers to consider how to respond to them. Ultimately, that might require changing the rules. For the sake of the lottery’s public image, it needs to stop rewarding stupidity and indulging bad behavior.