Is the Lottery Harmful to Society?

The word lottery derives from the Latin “to cut,” meaning “cut by lot.” A lottery is a process that distributes prizes to winners chosen by chance. The origins of the game can be traced back centuries. In fact, the Old Testament instructs Moses to organize a lottery for the land distribution, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property. Later, European lotteries developed as a way to raise money for war and aid the poor. In the 18th century, colonial America held many lotteries to finance public projects, such as roads, libraries, churches, colleges and canals. Benjamin Franklin even ran a lottery to fund a battery of cannons for Philadelphia’s defense.

Despite this long history, there is still debate over whether lotteries are harmful to society. Those in favor of lotteries argue that the entertainment value of playing and the non-monetary benefits for participants offset the negatives. In addition, if the expected utility of winning is high enough for a particular individual, then purchasing tickets may be a rational choice.

The biggest problem with this argument is that it ignores the regressivity of the lottery. Research shows that stores selling lotteries are disproportionately clustered in lower-income communities, and far more money is spent every year on instant scratch-off games that tend to draw low-income players than big jackpot drawings. Moreover, concerns that low-income households spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on lotteries have blocked the expansion of state lotteries in the past.