Lottery Commissions and the Politics of Playing the Lottery
Lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize. Its roots go back centuries. The Bible mentions it, and Nero was a fan. During the American Revolution, the lottery was popular among slaveholders as a way to give away property and even human beings, though that was not its original purpose. The first European lotteries appeared in fifteenth-century Burgundy and Flanders, with towns attempting to raise funds for a variety of purposes.
Modern lottery games have become a popular pastime, with more Americans than ever playing. The top prizes are huge, and they get great publicity. Yet the odds of winning are actually quite low, and a large percentage of tickets go unclaimed. The games are also regressive, and the players who spend billions on them represent a significant portion of government revenues that could be used for other things, like education, social services, or public parks.
Those who support the lottery argue that people are going to gamble anyway, so why not let the state pocket the profits? But Cohen points out that the logic is flawed. It is the same logic that tobacco companies use to sell their products and that video-game makers exploit to keep you hooked. Moreover, the fact that lottery profits have increased with economic volatility indicates that states are using the proceeds to fill their coffers rather than to improve services.
As a result, lottery advocates have shifted their approach. They no longer try to convince voters that a lottery will float most of the state’s budget; instead, they promise that it will cover one line item in particular, usually something that is popular and nonpartisan, such as education, elder care, or public parks. This strategy makes it easy for a vote on the lottery to be cast as a vote against cutting any other service. It is a shrewd political move, but it also misses the point that gambling is about risk and reward, not government spending.
A second message that lottery commissions promote is that the money you spend on a ticket is “low-risk.” The idea, of course, is to mislead. As we learned in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, when economic boom times turn to bust, lottery sales increase as job security erodes and poverty rates climb. Lottery advertising is heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.
A third strategy is to make the jackpots appear as newsworthy as possible. To do this, they lift prize caps and increase the number of finalists in each drawing. This decreases the chance of a single winner, but it increases the chances that the prize will carry over into future drawings. It’s a simple trick that works, and it also gives lottery operators a chance to generate free publicity. This, in turn, drives up ticket sales. As a bonus, it makes the games seem more legitimate and reduces resistance to them. In short, it’s a recipe for addiction.