The Growing Social Impact of Lottery Games

The casting of lots to decide events has a long history, including multiple instances in the Bible. Lotteries as a means of raising money for public purposes are even older, dating back at least to the reign of Augustus Caesar in Rome for municipal repairs and in 1466 in Bruges in what is now Belgium, where tickets cost ten shillings each. The lottery gained popularity in England and, later, the American colonies despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. A lottery’s appeal stemmed not only from its potential prize value but also its claim to be a charitable enterprise—every ticket was a get-out-of-jail-free card, in effect. The winning numbers were often printed on the tickets and publicized in newspapers, and the resulting proceeds went toward building schools and charity for the poor.

Those days are gone. Since the mid-sixties, when New Hampshire approved the first modern state lottery, many others have followed suit in an effort to raise revenue with minimal taxes and other fees. The problem, as researchers and politicians have learned, is that the public’s enthusiasm for a lottery is not directly related to the state government’s objective fiscal situation. In fact, lottery revenues consistently expand dramatically at the start but then level off and, in some cases, decline. This has prompted the introduction of innovative games in an attempt to keep up revenues, which have fueled a steady expansion into keno and video poker as well as an increase in advertising spending.

Although the odds of winning a lottery are inherently small, they make a large difference to the average player. The chance of getting one in three million is much better than the chance of getting two in a billion, and the average player will tend to play more often in that case. As a result, lottery officials have been forced to lift jackpot caps and lower the probability of winning in order to sustain enthusiasm.

A more serious issue is the social impact of a lottery’s alluring promise of instant wealth, particularly in an age of growing inequality and limited social mobility. In the past, some of the criticism against lottery games has focused on the fact that they may entice poorer people to spend more than they can afford to lose, but new developments have heightened concerns that lotteries are promoting gambling addiction and enticing problem gamblers with ever-larger prizes.

There are other issues with the lottery, of course. As a form of gambling, it is morally suspect and should be regulated like any other commercial activity that involves payment for the chance to win something of value. But, as the story of the villagers and their lottery illustrates, it is difficult to do so in a society where people’s willingness to participate in irrational behavior remains unrestrained. That is why it is so important to continue to educate the public about the risks of gambling and to limit state involvement in the industry.