How the Lottery Affects Society

When people buy lottery tickets, they are essentially paying money to the state in exchange for a small chance of winning something big. That arrangement is based on chance, and people naturally feel drawn to the game. But it’s worth considering how that arrangement reflects on society, particularly as we face a world of rising income inequality and declining financial security for working Americans.

Unlike other gambling, lotteries are popular and widespread. Lottery games are legal in 45 states and Washington, DC, and have become a major source of federal revenue. In addition, Americans spend more than $80 billion on lottery tickets each year — that’s over $600 per household. It’s worth remembering that, when it comes to chance, the odds of winning a large jackpot are extremely low.

Cohen notes that the lottery’s rapid expansion during the late twentieth century coincided with a decline in financial security for many working Americans: income gaps widened, pensions and jobs disappeared, health-care costs rose, and the long-standing national promise that hard work would pay off was increasingly out of reach.

But despite these concerns, the lottery has gained broad support. Lotteries have won public approval mainly because state governments see them as a source of “painless” revenue, and voters view them as a way to get tax money for free. Indeed, studies have shown that the objective fiscal conditions of a state are not likely to affect its decision whether or when to adopt a lottery.