Lottery is a fixture in American life, an activity in which people spend upwards of $100 billion per year. State governments use the money to fund everything from public education to highway construction. But just how meaningful that revenue is to the broader state budget, and whether it’s worth the trade-off to people who lose money, isn’t always clear.

The problem is that lottery promotions rely on two messages, both of which are deeply misleading. The first is that playing the lottery is fun—the experience of scratching a ticket, the adrenaline rush of thinking you might have won. This obscures the regressivity, which is considerable. The other message, which is coded in the name of “social justice,” is that poor people should play the lottery because it helps them out. But this is a lie. Rich people buy fewer tickets than the poor—a recent study found that those making more than fifty thousand dollars a year buy only one percent of their total income on lottery tickets, whereas those who make less than thirty thousand dollars buy thirteen percent. Lottery commissions also try to hide the odds of winning by constantly raising prize caps and lowering jackpot amounts, so that the chances of hitting a seven-hundred million-dollar jackpot are about as good as those of winning the lottery for a Snickers bar.

But the underlying problem with lotteries is that they’re designed to exploit human psychology. Just like cigarettes or video games, they are addictive and can be difficult to stop. And just as those addictive products are marketed to the vulnerable, state lotteries are targeted in specific neighborhoods and heavily promoted to low-income families.

As a result, the people who are most likely to play the lottery are those who can least afford to. The lottery is not just a tax on stupidity, as its defenders argue; it’s a form of regressive redistribution.

The short story “The Lottery” by Kurt Vonnegut lays out a terrifying picture of a small town in which an annual lottery is held that has the unsettling effect of allowing random persecution. Whenever someone draws the wrong number, the villagers will turn against him or her, even children, and kill them. The only reason that the villagers continue to hold the lottery is because they believe that it has always been part of their community fabric. As the story shows, this is a dangerously false rationale. This is why it’s so important for policymakers to scrutinize the lottery’s role in society. For more, check out this article by the authors of a new book on gambling. Or watch the introductory clip below. This excerpt is adapted from The New York Times Magazine, September 2021. Subscribe to the magazine today. Copyright 2019 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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