The Dangers of Lottery Addiction
A gambling game in which numbered tickets are sold for a chance to win prizes based on a drawing of numbers at random. Lotteries are often sponsored by states as a way of raising money for public or private purposes.
In America, lottery games are a major source of state government receipts. But the games also divert billions from savings that could be invested in retirement, college tuition, or other needs. And they have been shown to erode morale among the working class and depress incomes. A study published last year found that lottery play among low-income households declined as the economy improved.
Lottery advertising tries to convince us that the game is fun, and it does work to some extent. But there is much more to it than that. The games entice people with the prospect of instant riches, and that is a dangerous message in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.
There is a basic human impulse to gamble, and in a society that has made it hard for people to have secure jobs and own homes, a lottery offers the possibility of an easy windfall. And because there is no limit to how many times a person can purchase tickets, it is possible for someone to become addicted.
Despite this, most people who play the lottery do not view themselves as compulsive gamblers. The overwhelming majority play for small amounts of money—typically $1 or $2, but sometimes even much less—in the hope that they will win a few million dollars. This is not an unusual story, but it does obscure how serious and destructive a problem lottery addiction can be.
The term “lottery” comes from the Dutch word lot, meaning “fate.” Early state-sponsored lotteries took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century, but records of the first American lottery date to 1612. Lottery revenues grew quickly and were used to help build town fortifications and help poor people. George Washington even sponsored a lottery in 1768 to raise funds for building roads across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Today, most state lotteries offer games that allow players to choose a combination of digits or symbols on a ticket for the chance to win large sums of money. In the United States, the two largest multistate games, Powerball and Mega Millions, have jackpots that can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. These games compete with each other to attract customers by offering increasingly dazzling prize amounts, which are advertised widely through billboards, radio, TV, and the Internet.
Until recently, most state lotteries operated as traditional raffles, with the winnings announced only at some future time. But they have begun to adopt innovations that have transformed the nature of the lottery industry. The biggest innovation has been the introduction of instant games, which require no future drawing and offer smaller prize amounts but more frequent winners. These games have driven the growth of jackpots and have increased the frequency with which they make news, thus boosting revenue. In addition, the popularity of these games has led to a proliferation of new state offerings.