The Official Lottery and Its Dark Side

In a crowded field of gambling games, the official lottery offers something no one else can: the possibility of instant riches. But the lottery has a dark side, critics say. It lures people with big jackpots and dangles the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And it disproportionately hurts low-income communities, they argue.

A lottery is a procedure for distributing something (usually money or prizes) among a group of people by chance, often using tickets purchased from the state or sponsor in exchange for a consideration, such as work, money, or property. In modern use, the term also applies to commercial promotions in which goods or services are offered for a chance to win a prize. It may also refer to a public event in which winning numbers or symbols are drawn by some random process, such as shaking or tossing.

When state lotteries first emerged in the United States, they were marketed as a way to raise funds for education, such as K-12 or college, or both. Many states also use the proceeds for other purposes, such as road and park maintenance. But a Howard Center investigation found that, for the most part, lottery revenue is spent on high-end schools and colleges in wealthy districts far from where tickets are sold. “Lower-income people are collateral damage to a lottery that legislators believe is being used for good purposes,” says Gregory W. Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts.