Lottery Effects on the Poor

Across the country, Americans spent upward of $80 billion on lottery tickets last year, making it the largest form of gambling in the United States. Despite their popularity, state lotteries remain controversial and have many ill effects, particularly on the poor. This article focuses on two main issues: 1) How the regressive nature of lottery playing affects the most vulnerable members of our society, and 2) whether or not state governments are wisely using proceeds from these games to fund education or other public services.

The use of chance to make decisions or determine fates has a long record in human history (see, for example, several episodes in the Bible), but the modern lottery is a newer phenomenon. In its current form, it typically involves paying a small sum for a chance to win a larger sum. Its success has created a large number of private companies and, in many cases, state agencies whose profits depend on the growth and profitability of the lottery.

Lottery policy is typically made piecemeal, and a lack of a clear state or national policy has resulted in lotteries that are fragmented in both structure and marketing. Moreover, because the industry has developed a strong dependence on revenue streams, state officials have little incentive to consider the impact of their actions on a wider society.

Rather, they are often focused on the message that lottery plays are fun and, if they lose, people should feel good that they did their civic duty to support the lottery and “save the children.” This is a dangerously naive message that masks the regressivity of the games, obscures their scale, and obscures the fact that winning a prize is highly unlikely.

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