Lottery Problems and Ethical Concerns

From scratch-offs at a check-cashing joint to Powerball and Mega Millions tickets alongside Snickers bars at the Dollar General, lotteries are everywhere. And state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction to keep people playing. Lotteries aren’t so different from the marketing strategies of cigarette companies or video-game makers—they just happen to be under government supervision.

Lotteries, or the drawing of lots, have a long history, dating back to the Roman Empire, where they were deployed as a party game—Nero was a big fan—or as a divining device. They made their way to the Low Countries in the 15th century, where towns used them to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. In colonial America, lotteries were tangled up with slavery in unexpected ways, including the purchase of human beings by George Washington and a lottery that helped foment a slave rebellion.

In the modern era, lotteries have become increasingly popular as states seek to solve budget crises without alienating anti-tax voters. But the popularity of lotteries has also fueled a new set of problems, as studies have shown that lottery proceeds are disproportionately concentrated in poor neighborhoods and among low-income people. In addition, the expansion of new games and slick advertising campaigns has prompted some players to turn to illegal gambling to try and beat the odds. This has produced a second set of ethical concerns.