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The Lottery Is Not Just a Cash Grab

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The lottery is a big business, and the prize money has grown enormously. Almost every state has one. It’s easy to understand why, in a time of budget crises and declining tax revenues, it might seem tempting for states to turn to the lottery as a way of avoiding cuts in social services or raising taxes on the rich. But the lottery is not just a cash grab. It’s also a morally skewed form of gambling that, in dangling the promise of instant riches, reinforces an ugly underbelly of American life.

In the beginning, lottery games were not terribly popular. They were often tangled up with the slave trade, and George Washington once managed a lottery that included human beings as prizes. Benjamin Franklin attempted to use a lottery to raise funds for the Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson used a private lottery to ease his crushing debts.

But public lotteries were soon attracting substantial crowds. By the end of the nineteenth century, America’s growing appetite for gambling had given birth to a national obsession with winning the lottery. In that era of inequality and limited social mobility, the lottery’s appeal was especially powerful.

Initially, critics of the lottery framed their arguments in terms of gambling addiction and regressive effects on low-income people. Today, those issues are still raised, but the discussion has shifted from arguing whether or not the lottery is morally just to addressing how much money it is raising and how that revenue is being spent.

The modern lottery works in this general manner: the state establishes a monopoly for itself by legislating a lottery; establishes a government agency or public corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm to run it in return for a percentage of ticket sales); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure to raise more revenues, progressively expands its offering.

A central part of the modern lottery’s attraction is that it allows players to participate by marking a box or section on their playslip to indicate that they accept whatever numbers are randomly picked for them, without indicating any particular numbers themselves. This is sometimes called “auto-play,” and it is a common feature in many modern lotteries.

Defenders of the lottery argue that this feature is a safeguard against compulsive gambling. They further point out that players are aware that the odds are long, but they enjoy playing anyway. In fact, this rationalization ignores the reality that the initial odds are extremely long. It is the enduring belief that hard work and education will make us all wealthy someday, coupled with the irrational belief in an unquantifiable chance of winning the lottery, that is the real culprit. As income gaps widened and unemployment rose, and as health-care costs soared, the fantasy of winning the lottery became an even more potent lure for working families. Those who are most likely to buy tickets are those most desperate to get ahead.

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