The Lottery and Its Social and Ethical Problems


Lottery is a game that is operated by state governments and offers the chance to win a cash prize for a small investment. The prizes are usually large sums of money, but the odds of winning are extremely low. The vast majority of ticket buyers lose, but the game has still been successful enough to generate tremendous profits for the sponsoring state government. In 2002 alone, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia reaped $42 billion in lottery profits. Proponents cite the game as an easy source of revenue, and many politicians look to it as a painless alternative to raising taxes. Opponents counter that the game preys on the poor and is a form of regressive taxation, and that state involvement in gambling undermines moral values.

The casting of lots to determine fates or to distribute property has a long record in human history, including several instances recorded in the Bible. The first recorded public lotteries to distribute prizes in the form of money were held in the 15th century in the Low Countries for a variety of purposes, including town fortifications and charity.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Continental Congress voted to establish a national lottery to raise funds for the American Revolution; this project was ultimately abandoned, but privately organized lotteries remained popular in the United States, especially in the 1680s and early 1700s. In those years, the lotteries raised millions of dollars for colleges and other institutions, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and Union and Brown.

Today, the popularity of state-sponsored lotteries continues to grow, and the game is also offered on the Internet. However, despite the widespread popularity of the games, their social and ethical problems remain serious. The primary issue is that lottery advertising necessarily promotes gambling to a broad and sometimes unwitting audience, including young children, who may be more likely to play later in life. The promotional material often depicts the glitz and glamour of gambling, further inflaming the fears of some parents.

In addition, the games are inherently unfair to some groups of people, particularly the poor and working classes. Many of those groups are the heaviest users of state services, including the police and schools, yet are the least likely to be able to afford to play the lottery. The result is that the lottery, unlike most other taxes, imposes an unequal burden on different groups in society and does not benefit the whole community. This unequal distribution of wealth is a major concern for critics of the games.