The Truth About the Lottery
In the United States, the lottery was not just a popular pastime but also a significant source of public finance. It financed roads, canals, schools, churches, libraries, colleges, and other private ventures. It also helped fund the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In addition, it was often tangled up with the slave trade. For instance, George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery whose prizes included human beings; and one formerly enslaved man won a South Carolina lottery and used the winnings to foment a slave rebellion.
While people still play the lottery for a chance at instant wealth, the game is really about irrational gambling behavior. People know that the odds of winning are long and they go about trying to increase them in all kinds of irrational ways. They get into quote-unquote systems that don’t hold up to statistical reasoning, they have lucky numbers and luckier stores, and so on.
The wealthy do play the lottery, of course; but they buy fewer tickets than the poor (except when jackpots approach ten figures); so their purchases represent a smaller percentage of their incomes. In fact, the average person making fifty thousand dollars a year spends one per cent of his or her income on lotteries; and the average person making thirty thousand dollars a year spends thirteen per cent.
That, of course, is what the marketing people behind the lottery want you to believe. They make the games seem harmless and fun, which obscures their regressivity, and they encourage this meritocratic belief that we’re all going to get rich someday.