Is the Lottery Worth the Risk?
In America, people spend upward of $80 billion on lottery tickets each year. The games’ proponents laud them as ways for states to raise revenue without rousing an anti-tax populace, even though the prizes are often illusory and the odds of winning are absurdly low. They also claim that the money raised is devoted to a wide range of public uses, from education to elder care to parks. But just how meaningful that revenue is to state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-offs of people losing money, are questions worth asking.
Lottery is a trippy affair, not least because it’s not so much about chance as it is about the slivers of hope that we may have a shot at getting what we want. We know we’re not going to win, but we want to believe that we can. That’s a pretty human impulse, and it is a big part of why people play.
Historically, lottery-like schemes have been common in the Low Countries and England, where they helped fund town fortifications and philanthropy for the poor. They spread to America, where they were used to raise funds for the American Revolution and to build many of the nation’s top colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary. By the late twentieth century, as state governments looked for ways to finance budget shortfalls that wouldn’t rile up anti-tax voters, lottery-style gaming became an increasingly common solution.