The lottery is a popular pastime, and there is an inextricable human impulse to gamble. But the bigger problem with lotteries is that they are dangling an impossible dream of instant riches in an era of inequality and declining financial security. Billboards on the highway proclaiming “Mega Millions” and “Powerball” jackpots lure people into a fantasy of unimaginable wealth. The lust for lottery winnings is especially dangerous because it coincided with a sharp decline in the incomes of most working Americans, and the loss of faith that hard work would yield greater prosperity than previous generations enjoyed.

When New Hampshire introduced the first state lottery in 1964, it was part of a wave of states searching for budgetary solutions that wouldn’t enrage voters against tax increases. Politicians saw the lottery as a sort of budgetary miracle, the way to maintain existing services without raising taxes. Initially, advocates promoted the lottery by arguing that it would raise hundreds of millions, freeing the states from the need to impose sales or income taxes.

But as the lottery industry evolved, politicians found that they could no longer sell it as a statewide silver bullet. In order to garner enough support for legalization, they started promoting it as a funding source for a specific line item in the state budget, usually education but sometimes elder care, public parks or aid to veterans. This narrow approach made it easier for proponents to argue that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but in favor of a particular government service.

Once states took control of the lottery system, they began to expand it in ways that they saw fit. They would authorize games to help certain institutions raise money, and they owned the wheels used for drawing prizes. This was a classic case of policy making by piecemeal and incrementally, with little overall oversight or consideration of the public interest.

The lottery’s evolution is a textbook example of the way that private interests drive public policy, even when they are “public” in name only. In the beginning, it is easy to imagine that the general public would benefit from a lottery, but as the industry developed, it became clear that its primary constituency was convenience store owners (who bought their tickets in bulk); lottery suppliers (who make large contributions to state political campaigns); teachers in those states where a portion of lottery revenues is earmarked for them; and state legislators (who quickly become dependent on lottery revenue).

Although wealthy Americans do play the lottery—one of the largest jackpots ever was won by three investment managers in Greenwich, Connecticut—their purchases represent far smaller percentages of their incomes than those of poorer players. As a result, the majority of lottery players are low-income, less educated, nonwhite and male. This is the group that the advertisers are targeting, and it is the one that can easily be manipulated by marketing strategies. The exploitation of these vulnerable groups is a moral outrage.

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