The Lottery and the Politics of Addiction


The Lottery

Whether it’s scratch-off tickets at check-cashing stores or Powerball and Mega Millions at gas stations, state lotteries sell the promise of instant wealth. And, as we learn in this week’s story from “The New Yorker,” government-run lotteries aren’t above playing the psychology of addiction to keep people coming back for more. It’s a strategy not much different from the one used by tobacco companies and video game makers.

In the early eighties, as Cohen explains, state governments that had no appetite for imposing sales or income taxes turned to lotteries to boost revenue. They were often marketed as budgetary miracles, allowing states to float an entire category of spending–often education or elder care or public parks–without requiring voters to endorse a tax increase.

But as the odds of winning grew increasingly remote, politicians and citizens alike started to question the value of lottery money. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, “people have a hard time believing that one-in-three-million chances mean very much.” When, Cohen notes, winnings were routinely far less than expected, legalization advocates shifted tactics. Instead of arguing that a lottery was a silver bullet for a state’s finances, they now emphasized that it would fund a single line item, usually education or a veterans program.

The popularity of the lottery accelerated in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, as Americans grappled with a shattered economy. Jobs disappeared, pensions and health-care coverage eroded, and the long-held national promise that hard work and education would make people richer than their parents ceased to be true for many.