The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

A lottery is a gambling game in which people pay money for a chance to win a prize. People can win anything from small items to large sums of money. Most lotteries are run by governments or private companies. A lottery can also be a way to allocate social services such as housing units or kindergarten placements.

People who play lotteries know the odds are long. But they buy tickets anyway, because there’s this inextricable human impulse to gamble. And for a day or two, that buck or two buys them a dream: They can sketch out the layout of their dream mansion, plan their dream vacation, script their “take this job and shove it” moment with the boss and coworker who pisses them off all the time.

But this fantasy is just a mask for the ugly underbelly of lotteries: They are, at their core, an exercise in false hope. They give people a slim sliver of a chance to change their lives—to buy that luxury home world, take that trip, close all those debts.

And the lottery can be great for states, whose coffers swell with ticket sales and winners. But that money comes from somewhere, and studies suggest it’s mainly from poor people and minorities. And people who are poor don’t have good money management skills, so they tend to spend the windfall, rather than paying down debt or saving it. In fact, studies show that the vast majority of lottery winners end up worse off than they started.