The Dark Underbelly of Lottery Games

Whether they play for the chance of winning a big prize or just for fun, millions of people have a habit of purchasing lottery tickets every week. Lottery proceeds add up to billions of dollars a year. But is there a dark underbelly to this activity? It seems that it may be, at least in part, an attempt to avoid having to earn one’s money through honest work. A biblical perspective on wealth would suggest that God wants us to make money by hard work: “Lazy hands will not eat” (Proverbs 23:5). Lottery games, however, imply that a person’s fate is dependent on chance. And, although casting lots for decisions has a long history in the Bible and among ancient societies, using them for material gain is more recent.

The first public lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, for a variety of purposes, including the construction of town fortifications and to help the poor. In America, the colonies adopted them in 1744 and lotteries played a significant role in financing public works projects, such as roads, canals, churches, colleges, and canal locks. Benjamin Franklin, for example, sponsored a lottery to raise funds to build cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

A key element of a lottery is that the prize money must be large enough to draw players, while being small enough to keep the overall cost of participation within acceptable limits. This is usually accomplished by dividing the total pool of available prizes into fractions, such as tenths. Each fraction costs slightly more than the price of an entire ticket and is sold in a hierarchy of sales agents, each of which passes the money up through the organization until it is “banked.”

While the smallest prizes are often given away to participants with tickets, a substantial percentage of the total pools goes as taxes and promotion expenses and a percentage is usually retained by the lottery operator or sponsor. The remainder is then available for the winners. Lotteries typically promote the availability of their products through extensive advertising. While this can be effective, it has created some controversy over the effect that promotion has on the social fabric. The alleged negative impact on the poor, the problem of compulsive gambling, and the regressive effects on lower-income groups are some of the concerns that have been raised in this regard.

Moreover, because the lottery is run as a business with the primary purpose of maximizing revenues, its marketing must focus on persuading target audiences to spend their money. This can create issues that go beyond the question of whether this is an appropriate function for a government agency to fulfill. It can also create a sense of false hope for those who purchase tickets. It may be true that a few lucky individuals can win the lottery, but for most it is more likely to result in a costly addiction than in financial independence.