The Regressivity of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase a ticket, or numbers, and hope to win a prize. Prizes can be anything from cash to free units of a service, such as school supplies or a parking space. In the United States, the lottery is a legal game with state-sanctioned organizations responsible for running it and dispensing prizes. It is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world, and it is estimated that Americans spend over $80 billion on lotteries annually.

In gambling anthropology, the lottery is the most common form of public gambling in human history. It has been used for centuries to finance everything from the building of the British Museum to the European settlement of America. Its popularity grew as states cast around for solutions to budget shortfalls that wouldn’t enrage the increasingly anti-tax electorate.

Despite the regressivity of the lottery and its long-standing history of abuse, it persists. It may be because it carries certain symbolic benefits, like the idea that people should play for “the greater good” or a promise of better futures for their children. It could also be because the lottery resembles an alternative to the dreary reality of income inequality, job security, and healthcare costs that have eroded the American Dream since the nineteen seventies.

In addition to the message of expected value, which distills a multifaceted lottery into a single statistic, there is another message that lottery commissioners are pushing: that playing the lottery is fun and an excellent way to kill time. Unfortunately, this message obscures the regressivity of the lottery and makes it difficult for critics to point out its dangers.