The Truth About the Lottery


The lottery is a popular way to win a big prize. But the prize isn’t always what you think it might be. A recent story in The New York Times reveals how lottery participants were tricked into believing they were playing for the chance to buy a new car and instead got the opportunity to stone a woman to death.

The practice of lotteries dates back centuries, and it was common in the Roman Empire (Nero liked them) and among European colonists despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Lotteries helped finance everything from townships to wars and public-works projects, including the founding of Harvard and Yale.

In the early postwar period, states facing soaring inflation and a growing array of social safety-net programs needed money, but they didn’t want to face voters angry about increasing taxes. So they promoted the idea that lotteries were “budgetary miracles, the chance for states to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air,” writes Cohen.

But it turned out that lotteries were also inefficiently collected and a drop in the bucket for actual state governments—by some estimates as little as 1 to 2 percent of total state income. Worse, they often skewed toward the rich.

Since then, most lotteries have stopped trying to market their games directly to poor people. Instead they’ve relied on two messages largely: that the lottery is fun and that it’s easy to play. Both are coded to obscure the regressivity of lottery play.