The Profits of the Lottery


In a lottery, players purchase tickets, usually for very small stakes, and win prizes if the numbers on their ticket match those randomly selected by machines. While lottery games are often promoted as a way to help poor people, the truth is that they are addictive and can ruin lives. Those who play regularly can lose money, friends, jobs, and homes. There is a much higher chance of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than winning the Powerball jackpot, yet millions play every year. Some states even sell scratch-off tickets at check-cashing outlets and Dollar General stores, as a way to entice the public with the promise of instant riches.

In addition to its illogicality and deception, the lottery is also highly profitable for state governments. The profits from lotteries can be used to offset the cost of government programs, which are typically financed by state and local taxes. In the nineteen-sixties, a recession, rising inflation, and war costs caused state budgets to balloon, and states began to struggle to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services. Lottery revenues became an attractive alternative.

The first state-run lottery was introduced in New Hampshire in 1964. Many others followed suit, mainly in the Northeast and Rust Belt. As Cohen writes, lottery advocates argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so why not let the state pocket the profits? This argument disregarded longstanding ethical objections to gambling. It also ignored the fact that the majority of lottery bettors are low-income Black and Latino voters, who would have to pay for the services that white voters wanted to avoid paying for.

As a result, lottery profits are most heavily concentrated in communities that already face the greatest economic and social problems. Despite state-by-state regulations, illegal lottery operations thrive in these neighborhoods because of the high demand and easy profit. In some cases, gangs control entire lottery operations. Moreover, lottery proceeds are often used to finance organized crime and terrorism.

To prevent counterfeiting and fraud, most modern lotteries print matching, coded numbers on both the front and back of each ticket. In addition, they use an opaque coating to conceal the numbers and confusion patterns on the tickets’ backs. These features prevent candling, delamination, and wicking, while also making it impossible to read the numbers through the surface of the paper.

Those who play the lottery argue that the game is fair. They point out that it is unlikely that any single set of numbers will be more luckier than another, and that a particular number could come up only once in a million draws or more. They also point out that the game is designed to keep players coming back. Everything about it–from the advertising and the math behind the numbers to the design of the tickets themselves–is intended to be addictive, just like cigarettes or video games. This is true, but the same can be said of virtually any commercial product.