The official lottery is a state-operated gambling game that is meant to raise money for public purposes. State governments run lotteries under their own laws and independently from one another, although some are members of consortiums that jointly operate games with broader geographic footprints. Despite the fact that gambling is illegal in most places, states are eager to get into the business. There are a few different reasons why.
The first is, of course, fiscal exigency. In the nineteen-sixties, America’s postwar boom and rising inflation combined to hammer state budgets. For many, especially those that offered generous social safety nets, balancing the books became a challenge. The solution was to increase taxes or cut services, neither of which were very popular with voters. Lotteries stepped into the void, offering states the chance to earn extra money without arousing anti-tax protests.
A second reason is the belief that lotteries can capture gambling’s inherent appeal. This view suggests that people will always want to play the lottery, and if you don’t offer it, they’ll go elsewhere. This is a dangerous assumption, and it’s one that lottery critics use to argue against the games.
In reality, the opposite is true. The success of the New York lottery, which launched in 1967, is a case in point. Its initial marketing campaigns wildly inflated its impact on state budgets, suggesting that it would fund everything from schools to police patrols. In reality, lottery funds only cover about five per cent of education spending.
Lottery marketers have since learned how to deftly fend off such criticism by framing their products as a way to “give back.” Their ads portray state lotteries as morally responsible businesses, and they emphasize the contributions that winning tickets make to charitable causes.
In truth, however, state-run lotteries are nothing more than commercialized gambling. As such, they rely on a combination of psychological tricks and consumer psychology to keep people playing and spending. The same strategies are employed by tobacco companies and video-game makers, but they’re not normally used under the auspices of state government.
As a result, state lotteries prey on poor people. Cohen points out that lottery sales increase as incomes decline, unemployment rises, and poverty rates climb. And, like other commercial products, lottery ads are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino. This, in turn, feeds a sense among those residents that they’re being scammed. It’s no wonder, then, that lottery critics sometimes cast the games as a “tax on stupidity.” It’s a bit more complicated than that. People who play the lottery aren’t dumb; they’re just suckered into believing that they can win enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. And that’s a big gamble.