Social Inequality and the Lottery


Lotteries have become the favored means of raising money for everything from public works projects to school buildings. In the United States, state-run lotteries are legal and popular, raising billions of dollars each year. They are promoted as painless forms of taxation, and they are widely supported by politicians of all stripes. Even famous American leaders like thomas jefferson and benjamin franklin saw great usefulness in them.

But there’s more than just an inextricable human impulse to gamble that lottery organizers appeal to. Lotteries also dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And they know that a significant percentage of their players come from middle- and low-income neighborhoods.

In fact, researchers have found that the majority of lottery participants and revenues come from the middle class. Only about 20% of the total pool comes from high-income households and only about 6% from low-income ones. Those in the middle are the biggest winners of the lottery, and they tend to be whites.

Lottery supporters offer many reasons for the popularity of their games, from the public’s love of gambling to the desire to siphon money away from illegal casinos and “keeping up with the Joneses.” But these arguments often gloss over the regressive nature of the lottery and its role in fueling social inequality.