Social Benefits of the Lottery


Lottery is a type of gambling in which people pay a small sum to be entered into a drawing with the chance to win a large prize. Governments use this practice to raise money for many purposes, ranging from building schools to paying soldiers. Many states have banned lotteries, but the Continental Congress voted to hold one to raise funds for the American Revolution. Today, the lottery is mostly a commercial enterprise, but some governments still offer them to raise money for various social services. Examples include lotteries for units in subsidized housing blocks or kindergarten placements at a local public school.

Some state leaders believe that lotteries help them expand their social safety net without raising taxes. This view is flawed. In fact, lottery revenue has shifted from the middle and working classes to those with more disposable incomes. Moreover, it’s not clear that the lottery makes the safety net any better.

A number of people play the lottery because they like to gamble. But it’s also true that the majority of players are low-income, less educated, nonwhite, or male. These groups are disproportionately represented in the player base of state lotteries, even though they comprise only 50 percent of America’s population. Lotteries rely on two messages primarily to lure players. They tell people that playing is a fun activity and imply that they’re performing their civic duty by buying a ticket.

But they never mention that the regressivity of the game undermines its ability to boost socioeconomic mobility. They also neglect to tell people that the winnings from the games are far more likely to go toward purchasing a ticket than going to invest in education, health care, or job training.

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