A lot of people, to some degree, just plain like to gamble. That’s one thing that lottery companies understand, and they capitalize on it by dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. It’s a pretty ingenious strategy, and it’s working – Americans spend more than $80 billion a year on tickets. The number of winning tickets is staggeringly small, but that’s not the only problem with lottery gambling: It can damage families and communities, causing serious financial problems, mental health issues, addiction, and even suicide.
Though the idea of drawing numbers for a prize based on pure chance has a long history, modern lottery games are relatively recent. The first European lotteries began in the fifteenth century with towns attempting to raise funds for the poor. In America, the concept of public money prizes based on chance was pioneered by colonial governments to fund local and national projects, including canals, roads, colleges, churches, and even military expeditions.
In the nineteen-sixties, as inflation accelerated and states struggled to balance budgets, the popularity of state lotteries surged. Lotteries provided a way for states to raise funds without raising taxes, which would have enraged an increasingly anti-tax electorate. As more and more people began to play the lottery, they also grew aware of the many scams to which they were being subjected.
Lottery advocates dismissed moral objections to the practice and argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well pocket the profits. In the end, Cohen argues, this approach to legalized gambling served only to obscure its profoundly unequal effects on the country.
State-run lotteries are essentially gambling machines, and they’re designed to encourage addictive behavior. They use a variety of psychological tricks to lure in players, and they aren’t above using the same tactics as tobacco or video game manufacturers. Moreover, they promote their products to populations that are disproportionately poor or minorities.
Despite their deceptive marketing, some people do win. However, they typically find themselves tangled up in debt and with tax ramifications that can reduce the size of their jackpot. In addition, a lottery winner can quickly become reliant on the same types of addictive behaviors that lottery addicts engage in.
A big part of the reason for this is that people do not fully understand how rare it is to win. Lottery advertising often portrays playing the lottery as a “fun” experience, and it is easy to see why. But the reality is far different. The chances of winning are slim and the costs of playing are significant. The fact that so many people continue to participate in the lottery demonstrates the need for government to address the deep issues behind the gambling industry. The state must do a better job of informing and protecting its citizens. This is the essential task of a democracy. This article originally appeared on The New York Times and is reproduced with permission.