If you’re like most people, you probably buy a lottery ticket once or twice a year. Billboards dangle huge jackpots, and the idea of winning a prize bigger than any you can imagine entices many of us to play. But it’s not just that lotteries are dangling riches to people who wouldn’t otherwise gamble; they’re also selling the dream of instant wealth in a time of inequality and limited social mobility.
The history of the lottery dates back thousands of years, from Moses’s instructions for dividing land to Roman emperors giving away slaves by random drawing. Even religious groups have weighed in on the issue, with ten states banning lotteries between 1844 and 1859. But there are more recent, less well-known, reasons to be wary of the practice: The lottery is a tax on low-income families. It also diverts money from programs that would help working people, such as health care and education. And it encourages addictive gambling behavior, including a tendency to spend large chunks of their budget on tickets.
It’s no surprise, then, that lottery ads target low-income households, promoting games with tiny chances of winning big and touting the size of the prizes. But these messages are misleading. While some of the ad campaigns are certainly effective, most of them focus on two things – making the experience of scratching a ticket fun and obscuring the regressivity of the lottery’s effect on people’s finances.
Lottery commissions and their marketing firms are certainly not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. They use a variety of strategies, from the design of the lottery tickets to the math behind the games, to keep players coming back for more. These tactics aren’t particularly different from those used by tobacco companies or video-game makers.
But while a few committed gamblers are willing to risk everything for the chance of hitting it big, most people don’t play with that much recklessness. And that’s a big part of the reason why lotteries are so popular. While it’s true that you can’t win the lottery unless you have a roof over your head and food in your belly, those who do spend a significant portion of their income on tickets are usually clear-eyed about the odds. They know that, on average, they’re not likely to win, but they don’t let that deter them from trying.
For these committed gamblers, the utility of a potential monetary gain outweighs the disutility of a monetary loss. And while it’s unfortunate that this type of gambling has ruined the lives of some people, it’s important to remember that for most people a roof over their heads and food in their bellies come before potential lottery wins. It’s a lesson that all of us should heed.