The Regressivity of the Lottery

Across the country, Americans spend $80 billion a year on lottery tickets. They buy them for the thrill of scratching a ticket, which is fun for most people but not for all. But they also buy them to increase their chances of winning a prize and they do so even though they know that the odds of hitting the big jackpot are slim. This behavior is not just questionable, it is harmful. It obscures the regressivity of the lottery and encourages poorer people to spend too much of their limited incomes on gambling, often with disastrous results.

While the lottery’s history is complicated, its modern incarnation started in the nineteen-sixties when state budgets began to crumble under the weight of population growth, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. At that point, states could no longer afford their swollen array of services without either raising taxes or cutting programs that voters rejected.

So in 1964, New Hampshire introduced the first state lottery, which many believed would be a painless source of revenue. Lotteries are run like businesses, and they are designed to make as much money as possible while reducing costs. That is why they are staffed by people who know how to promote the game and persuade the public to play. And it is why the advertising is so aggressive and so misleading.

The advertising message for the lottery, coded in all its slick, catchy images and glitzy slogans, is that there is an inextricable human impulse to gamble. The lottery, they say, is a chance to win a large amount of money for a small investment. But there is more to it than that. Lotteries promote a false ideal of individual wealth and power in a world where there is growing inequality and where the chances for upward mobility are diminishing. And they do it all while dangling the promise of instant riches for those who are willing to take that chance.

As a result of the marketing strategy and the regressive structure of lottery proceeds, most state lotteries are dominated by middle-class players who are far more likely than average to be problem gamblers. As a result, they are also very expensive for lower-income citizens. Lotteries are also at cross-purposes with the public interest because, while they earmark some of their profits to specific programs, such as education, those funds remain in the general fund and can be spent for any purpose the legislature chooses.

In fact, critics charge that earmarking lottery proceeds for a particular program simply allows the legislature to reduce by that amount the appropriations it otherwise would have had to allot from the general fund for the purpose. This practice is known as slush funding.