The lottery is a national pastime, a source of big-ticket jackpots and the source of an inconvenient truth: It preys on poor people. That is a view shared by many researchers and public officials, who argue that state lotteries are more than just games of chance; they’re a financial exchange that is mathematically stacked against low-income players.
In the fifteenth century, the first public lotteries to offer tickets for sale with prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries, where they raised funds to build town fortifications and help the poor. By the time America began its rise as an independent nation, lotteries were a common method of raising public funding for everything from civil defense to building churches and colleges. In fact, the founders were big fans of the lottery: Benjamin Franklin ran one to raise money to establish Philadelphia’s library and John Hancock ran one to help finance Boston’s Faneuil Hall. And the Continental Congress used one to fund the Revolutionary War.
Today, lotteries rely on two main messages to persuade people to buy tickets. “One is that they’re supposed to feel good about playing the lottery, that it’s their civic duty or whatever,” says Bernal. “The other is that they’re supposed to benefit the state.”
But he says the messages are misleading, especially in the context of the percentage of state revenue that the lottery brings in. “I’ve never seen that put in the context of how regressive the lottery is.” He adds that in tough economic times, low-income people may be more likely to spend money on scratchers in order to try to win a large prize and escape poverty.