The Hidden Costs of the Official Lottery

Lotteries are the gambling game in which numbers or symbols on tickets are drawn for prizes, usually money. In the United States, state lotteries have raised more than $100 billion in 2021 alone, making them one of the most popular forms of gambling. People like to gamble, and the promise of winning big is what draws people to lottery games. But the way lotteries operate, and the specific benefits they tout, have consequences that deserve scrutiny.

Most of the time, state-run lotteries are advertised as helping students go to college or support local schools. But a Howard Center investigation found that in reality, they often create inequities by “disproportionately benefiting colleges and wealthier school districts far from the neighborhoods where lottery tickets are sold.” Poor people end up being collateral damage to raise funds for what legislators feel are good purposes: public safety or local schools.

The biggest reason for this is that the poorest people, those in the bottom quintile, don’t have enough discretionary income to buy a lot of lottery tickets. They’re not spending their few dollars on things like education or the American dream, and they haven’t the glimmer of hope that the next lottery will be their ticket out of poverty.

There’s a story behind why the states decided to offer these games, and it has to do with their need for revenue and the belief that gambling is inevitable and they might as well capture that business. But the truth is, it’s also an exercise in escapism. It’s that feeling that, if you can just hit it big, whatever the odds, you might finally be able to get out of your situation.

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