How the Lottery Affects Low-Income People

Lottery is America’s most popular form of gambling. It’s estimated that people spent upward of $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021, and state governments promote the games as a way to raise revenue without having to put forth especially onerous taxes on lower-income groups. But just how meaningful that revenue is, and whether the trade-offs to low-income people are worth it, is subject to much debate.

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, as documented in the Old Testament and in the ancient Roman practice of giving away property and slaves by lottery. The modern lottery, however, is relatively recent in its development. Only in the mid-20th century did states begin to regulate and commercialize the game.

State-run lotteries can be a powerful source of revenue for government, but they also have significant disadvantages and flaws, particularly in terms of the impact on lower-income groups. These flaws are rooted in the fact that, despite promoting themselves as games of chance, the odds of winning are heavily influenced by players’ choices. In addition, the way that jackpots are sized and shaped — by making them appear more newsworthy by reducing the chances of winning — distorts people’s sense of how likely it is to win.

What’s more, lottery plays are based on irrational behavior and beliefs. People like to pick numbers that are meaningful to them, such as children’s ages or birthdays. This creates the risk that if those numbers are drawn, the winners must split the prize with everyone else who played those same numbers, which reduces the overall payout. Instead, Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman recommends picking random numbers or buying Quick Picks that are already made up of the most frequently drawn numbers.

Even so, many people are committed lottery gamblers who spend a large share of their incomes on tickets. They have quote-unquote “systems” that they think improve their chances of winning, and they often buy tickets at specific stores or at certain times of day. They also have all sorts of irrational beliefs about lucky numbers and the best combinations to choose, which reinforce their irrational habits.

To help mitigate these effects, lottery marketers focus on two messages primarily. They tell people that the lottery is fun and offer an entertaining experience when they purchase a ticket, and they also tout the games’ philanthropic benefits, such as funding for schools. But promoting the lottery as a benign form of entertainment obscures its regressive nature and distorts how much people actually play, while the message about the lottery’s charitable benefits masks how the proceeds are used.