The Lottery and Its Effect on the American Way of Life

In the nineteen-seventies, states began introducing lotteries. These were, for the most part, Northeastern and Rust Belt states, where voters seemed to be more prone to accepting gambling’s promise of unimaginable wealth than elsewhere in the country. The lotteries’ approval coincided with a general national tax revolt and, more importantly, with a decline in the financial security of working Americans: income inequality widened, retirement and health care costs rose, government coffers shrank, and the old American promise that education and hard work would eventually make you rich ceased to be true.

In this context, the lottery’s advocates shifted their pitch. Instead of arguing that a state’s lottery could float an entire budget, they began to say that it would cover a single line item: usually some popular government service like education or elder care or aid for veterans. In this way they were able to make their case that a vote against the lottery was a vote against these worthy services, and thereby avoid the accusation that they were promoting gambling.

They also shifted the tone of their advertising to one that emphasized fun and entertainment. This has worked well. It obscures the regressivity of lottery spending by making it seem less serious and more playful. It also reinforces the notion that playing the lottery is not just a game but a form of self-fulfillment. Many people go into the lottery with this attitude, and they play it for years and spend large proportions of their income on tickets.