The Hidden Costs of Lottery

Lottery is a game in which players pay for a ticket, select a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit them out, and win prizes if enough of their numbers match those picked by a machine. It may sound like a product of the culture that birthed Instagram and the Kardashians, but it actually has roots as deep as America itself. Many of the country’s first church buildings and even parts of some of the world’s elite universities were funded with lottery money.

While some people play for pure fun, others genuinely believe the lottery is their only shot at a better life. In the US alone, billions of dollars are contributed to lotteries each year. In an era of inequality and limited social mobility, the lottery’s promise of riches is a seductive temptation. But the lottery isn’t just about chance—there’s a whole other layer of issues at play, including how much money people make off the games, who wins the jackpots, and the hidden costs of lottery play.

The main reason that lotteries have such broad public support is that the proceeds are seen as benefiting a specific, supposedly “good” cause—usually education. But this argument loses some of its force when it is revealed that the objective fiscal condition of state governments has little bearing on whether or when states adopt lotteries. And, once a lottery is established, it creates its own set of specific constituencies: convenience store owners (who sell the tickets); lottery suppliers, who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns; teachers, in those states in which lotteries revenues are earmarked for them; and, of course, the millions of people who play the games every week.