The Lottery and Gambling

A lottery is a game in which tokens are distributed or sold, with prizes given to the winners based on random selection. Traditionally, state governments operate lotteries. They legislate a monopoly for themselves; set up an agency or public corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the profits); start with a small number of relatively simple games; and then, under pressure from the need for additional revenues, gradually increase the size and complexity of the lottery.

Lotteries have an inextricable link to gambling. They dangle the prospect of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. In the first post-World War II period, states saw lotteries as a way to expand their services without raising taxes on middle-class and working-class families.

But, even though the lottery draws on an inextricable human impulse to gamble, it also sends a number of other messages. One is that the chance of winning isn’t really all that great — it’s more likely you’ll get struck by lightning than win the Powerball. The other is that playing the lottery is a way to “help” the community. This message, coded in the billboards promoting the jackpots for the Powerball and Mega Millions, obscures the lottery’s regressivity and teaches people to spend money they don’t have on a long-shot hope that they might win. It’s the same underlying dynamic that fuels the popularity of sports betting.