The Regressive Nature of the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay a sum of money for the chance to win a prize, such as cash or merchandise. It is also a way for governments and charities to raise money. The drawing of lots to decide rights, ownership, or other issues has a long record in human history (including several instances recorded in the Bible). But a lottery that offers chances to win material goods is a recent invention. The first lotteries to offer tickets with prize money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for a variety of purposes, including town fortifications and helping the poor.

State lotteries are promoted by officials as a way to finance public projects without raising taxes. As a result, they are able to win broad public approval. Moreover, they develop extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who sell the tickets); lottery suppliers (whose workers are frequently heavy contributors to state political campaigns); teachers (in states where the proceeds from lotteries are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who are often able to direct some of the revenue to their pet projects).

The popularity of the lottery also obscures its regressive nature. In the US, more than $100 billion was spent on tickets in 2021, and the vast majority of the players are poor. It is difficult to see how this regressive practice can be justified. In fact, if we were to make people a little more aware of the costs, they might not want to play at all.