The Dark Side of the Official Lottery

As the jackpot for the Powerball lottery approaches $1.9 billion, millions of Americans will continue to buy tickets, hoping to match all six winning numbers and become rich. But this popular form of gambling has a dark side, as it often disproportionately impacts low-income and minority groups.

Lottery games are a fixture of American culture, with people spending upward of $100 billion on them in 2021 alone. But is it worth the trade-off to those who have less money to begin with? That’s a question that deserves some serious consideration.

States use the proceeds of their lotteries for a variety of purposes. They can be used to help fund public education systems, for example, and many states have started promoting these programs in neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income and predominantly Black or Latino. In those communities, people are often pushed into buying more tickets because they think that this is a quick way to build wealth and pay for things such as college tuition, researchers say.

While critics point to a range of problems with state-run lotteries, there is one issue that has received particular attention: the disproportionate impact on poor and minority families. The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate, and in the 15th century, various towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor. By the late twentieth century, when a tax revolt was in full swing, politicians seized on lotteries as budgetary miracles that allowed them to maintain public services without raising taxes.