The Social Costs of Lottery Games
Although casting lots to determine fates has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), the modern lottery is of relatively recent origin. Most state lotteries are marketed as providing specific benefits to the general public, and this argument has been effective at winning and maintaining broad public support. It is particularly effective during periods of economic stress, when states may be forced to cut back on other public programs or raise taxes.
The basic elements of lottery are simple: a means of recording the identities and amounts staked by bettors, a pool of prizes of varying size, and some method of selecting and awarding these prizes to the winning bettors. Most lotteries collect and pool these stakes by giving bettor’s a ticket on which they write their names and other information, which are then shuffled for selection in the prize pool, and later retrieved to be matched with winners. Most modern lotteries also use a computer system to keep track of these tickets, and some use a combination of both human and machine-based selection processes.
In addition to their message that the odds of winning are astronomically low, lotteries rely on other messages, such as that playing the lottery is fun. These messages are largely coded to obscure the regressivity of lottery games and the degree to which people spend significant portions of their incomes on them. It is important to understand how these messages work together, and what their real social costs are.