The lottery has been a popular source of entertainment since ancient times. Nero was a fan, as were many Roman emperors, and it is attested to in dozens of biblical passages. In medieval Europe, lotteries were deployed as a party game during Saturnalia celebrations and to give away property and slaves. Guests would be given pieces of wood to mark with symbols, and the prizes were awarded by drawing lots at the end of the evening.
By the fourteen-hundreds, governments and licensed promoters were using lotteries to finance everything from building town fortifications to distributing weapons and ammunition to their armies. A lottery ticket cost ten shillings, or about a day’s wage at the time, and its purchase represented a substantial investment in an individual’s expected utility. The monetary prize value and the non-monetary entertainment value of winning were both considerable.
A few people can make a living from gambling, but for most people a lotto ticket is a bad idea. The odds are so bad that most players will never win, and those who do are almost always bankrupt within a few years. It is also not uncommon for lottery winnings to be subject to hefty taxes, and this can easily wipe out the entire jackpot.
State lotteries aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction to keep players coming back for more. They use clever marketing campaigns, attractive prizes and math that entices players to buy more tickets. It is not a strategy that has been discredited by science, and it isn’t much different than what tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers do to keep consumers hooked on their products.
During the nineteen-seventies and into the eighties, as Americans were losing ground on our long-standing national promise that hard work and education would guarantee financial security in old age, lottery revenues rose rapidly. They fueled a desire for unimaginable wealth, including the dream of hitting a multimillion-dollar jackpot. This obsession with wealth, and a corresponding decline in the ability of working families to afford a middle class lifestyle, was one factor in the rise of inequality and stagnant wages that continues today.
Lottery advocates in the nineteen-seventies and eighties dismissed objections that gambling was immoral, arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, then the government might as well collect the profits. This argument was flawed and irrational, but it gave moral cover to the spread of lotteries.
Now, more than 50 percent of American adults play the lottery. But the distribution of players is a bit more uneven than that figure suggests, and it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a pastime for “everybody.” Billboards promoting the Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots skew toward lower-income, less educated, nonwhite and male Americans. These groups are disproportionately more likely to play, and their spending on tickets is a significant percentage of the total amount spent by all Americans each year. The money they spend could be better spent on a savings plan, an emergency fund or paying off debt.