Lottery Advertising and the Regressive Nature of Lottery Play

In a lottery, a prize (typically money) is awarded to a participant who successfully selects all or most of the winning numbers. Modern lotteries of this type are regulated by law and require payment of some consideration for the opportunity to win a prize. Lotteries have been used for centuries in a variety of ways, including military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters. However, many state governments have adopted a form of lottery to raise money for public services and projects.

A primary argument in favor of lottery funding is that the proceeds benefit a particular public good, such as education. This argument is particularly persuasive in times of economic stress, when the prospect of increased taxes or reduced public spending threatens the quality of life for a large segment of the population.

But a close look at lottery advertising and the way that winners are characterized reveals that this claim is deceptive at best. Many critics argue that the lottery is a “regressive” activity, encouraging people who cannot afford to spend much money on other entertainment activities to gamble away a portion of their incomes in the hope of becoming rich. Some states have tried to counter this perception by “earmarking” lottery funds for a specific purpose, such as public education. But this practice is often a smokescreen for the fact that lottery funds reduce the appropriations in the legislature’s general fund that would otherwise go to the targeted programs.

The regressive nature of lottery play has been reinforced by research that shows that lottery playing is concentrated among lower-income groups, including those with low educational achievement and high rates of substance abuse. The stories of Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia construction worker who won the Powerball jackpot in 2002, are an extreme example of lottery funds being spent on extravagance and addiction. Whittaker gave stacks of cash to friends, church members, diner waitresses, and even his local strip club.

One of the main reasons why lottery advertising is so regressive is that it is designed to entice people to play with the claim that they can change their lives for the better. To do this, they must be persuaded to spend their money on tickets with long odds. A common strategy is to get friends to join a lottery syndicate, in which each person contributes a small amount to buy lots of tickets so that the chances of winning are multiplied.

While it is true that many people do improve their lives with lottery winnings, the fact remains that the vast majority of those who play do not. And the fact that lottery advertising is regressive and encourages compulsive gambling is just one more reason to question whether state officials should be in the business of running a lottery.