The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which the prize money, in its most basic form, is determined by chance. But a lot more than that goes into the business of distributing prizes. And the fact is that, whether the lottery is run by a government or a private company, it is not unlike the way tobacco companies or video-game makers sell their products: Both aim to hook you and then make it hard for you to break free.

A little-known fact is that many of the same people who win big in the lottery are also addicted to it. And just like tobacco or video games, the addiction can be quite serious. In the past, some states have even banned lottery sales. But that hasn’t stopped millions of Americans from buying tickets. In the past year alone, sales in nine states have declined. This is a trend that state regulators are trying to reverse.

But, as Cohen shows in his book, it’s not just the addiction that has states struggling to stay afloat; it is also a sense of powerlessness that makes people turn to the lottery. The late twentieth century saw the income gap widen, job security and pensions erode, health-care costs rise, and our long-held national promise that education and hard work would ensure a better life for children than their parents had experienced – that “life is a lottery” – became increasingly less likely to be true.

It is no coincidence that the growth of the lottery has coincided with this erosion in financial security. As lottery revenues grew, people began to see the money not as a ticket to an ever-larger house, but as their only hope of climbing out of poverty. And this is where the lottery’s ugly underbelly lies.

Despite the enduring popularity of the lottery, there are those who argue that it is not right for the government to run it, or for companies to sell it. The argument is that it violates the principle that a person’s property should be secure from unauthorized use by others.

Yet, this argument is flawed in several ways. First, the lottery has a history of being used to provide goods and services for the public good. Lotteries were used in the Middle Ages to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor, and they were introduced to America by colonists.

And in the modern world of consumer-driven marketing, it isn’t just retailers who sell the tickets; many of the lottery’s profits are generated by the state’s advertising and promotional activities. Moreover, in the context of gambling laws, the word lottery is generally understood to refer to any competition where the initial stages are entirely based on chance, while later stages may require skill. This arrangement is similar to a keno competition. However, if the winner is chosen by random selection (not skill), the event should be called something else. See Practical English Usage online for more information.