The Social Impact of Lottery Games

The lottery is a game of chance. And while the chances of winning are slim, people still play because they want to win. And they’re willing to invest a lot of time and money for that hope. They’ll buy tickets at their favorite convenience store, or even online. They’ll choose a lucky number, or try to improve their odds by buying multiple tickets. They’ll even take a trip to Las Vegas or another location just for the chance to buy a ticket.

But there’s more going on with lottery players than just the inextricable human impulse to gamble. Lottery games dangle the possibility of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility, and they know it. That’s why they use billboards with huge jackpots on major highways. It’s an effective strategy to attract people to their games and keep them coming back for more.

State-run lotteries are actually quite old, dating back to the Low Countries in the 15th century, where they were used to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that state lotteries really took off. Massachusetts was the first to introduce scratch-off tickets; Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont joined forces in 1982 for their first multistate lottery; and Vermont introduced the Quick Pick option that’s now an industry standard.

Originally, states regulated lotteries in order to ensure fairness. They owned the wheel that was used to draw the winning numbers and would lend it to organizations the state permitted to hold drawings for the benefit of the public. These institutions included churches, universities, canals and bridges, schools, and colleges. Many of the early buildings on Columbia, Princeton and other university campuses were funded with lotteries, as were many canal locks and road tunnels in colonial America.

A number of studies have suggested that while lottery revenue swells for states, it comes at the expense of lower-income and minority residents who are disproportionately likely to purchase tickets. Vox’s Alvin Chang points to one such study that found lottery revenues disproportionately increase in zip codes with the highest concentration of low-income and minorities. And while state lotteries do generate a significant amount of cash, the overall effect on poverty is “very small.”

Lottery officials have moved away from this regressive message and now focus on two messages primarily. They’re trying to convince the public that playing the lottery is fun, and they’re promoting innovation in their games, including scratch-off tickets, video poker, and keno. But these campaigns are flawed because they obscure how much the lottery actually costs, and because they’re based on a lie. The truth is that people spend a lot of their money on these games, and most of them don’t come out ahead. But for those who do, the lottery is a serious business that can be very lucrative. For them, it’s the ultimate game of chance. For everyone else, it’s a waste of their money.