Throughout the centuries, state governments have been using lotteries as budgetary miracles—a way to rake in money without having to increase taxes. Politicians who wanted to maintain services like public safety or local schools could do so, without risking voters’ ire, by putting out a lottery.
These days, lottery games are ubiquitous. They’re everywhere from the gas station to your favorite restaurant. People spend upward of $105 billion on tickets every year, which makes them the most popular form of gambling in America. But how meaningful these revenues are to state budgets and whether they’re worth the harms of promoting gambling is another question.
The answer to this question has a lot to do with how states promote the games and how they market the prizes. State lotteries have shifted away from the message that winning is about luck and chance, instead opting for two messages that play into myths of American entrepreneurship and the meritocratic belief that we’re all going to be rich someday.
The first message is that winning a lottery ticket is fun. It is, for a few moments. But focusing on the experience obscures how much people play and gives the impression that playing the lottery is lighthearted. It’s a game that entices many people to gamble large sums, even when they realize that the odds of winning are slim to none. And this is a big reason why state lotteries need to be put on the table for discussion.