Does Playing the Lottery Make Sense in an Age of Economic Inequality and Limited Social Mobility?
Lottery is a form of gambling in which a random number is drawn to determine a prize. The idea of determining fates and distributing property by chance has a long history, including dozens of instances in the Bible, but public lotteries to distribute cash prizes are relatively new. State governments run lotteries as businesses geared to maximizing revenues, and they promote them through advertising. The question is whether government at any level should be running a business that relies on profiting from gambling and promoting its sale, especially when it appears to run at cross-purposes with the general welfare of the community.
Lotteries advertise heavily on television, in newspapers and on the Internet, and the message they rely on is that playing the lottery is fun. In addition, the jackpots on many of these games are huge, which draws attention and increases interest. The result is that even people with low incomes can play for the chance of winning a large sum of money. This is one of the reasons that state lotteries are so popular and why they continue to generate enormous revenues.
The fact is, however, that most people who play the lottery lose money. This is not because of irrationality; the odds are bad, and so are the chances of a big win. In fact, I’ve talked to a lot of lottery players who spend $50 or $100 a week, and they are not only aware of the odds but they know the odds are bad, and they don’t care. They play anyway, because they enjoy it.
But what about the rest of us? Does the pleasure of playing a lottery make sense in an era of economic inequality and limited social mobility? That’s the question that I and others have been trying to answer.
In our work, we have found that the enjoyment people get from playing a lottery is primarily non-monetary. They like the experience of scratching the ticket, and they also feel that they are doing their civic duty to support their state. This is the same reason that state officials continue to promote the lottery, despite the fact that it is not a good way to fund education or reduce crime.
In addition, the advertising message that is used to promote lottery games tends to be deceptive. It portrays the jackpot amounts as newsworthy, and it inflates the value of the winnings (which are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically reducing their current value). We have found that the decision to adopt a lottery is rarely made based on an overall assessment of state policy; instead, the establishment of the lottery has been driven by the need for revenue. This has resulted in a patchwork of state lottery policies that are at odds with the needs and desires of the community. We have also observed that the continuing evolution of these policies can be difficult to control.