Lottery is the procedure of distributing something, often money or prizes, among a group of people by chance. The modern government-run lottery emerged in the US in the 1960s, but its roots are rooted deep in history. Governments have used lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” writes Cohen, “a way to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air without hiking taxes.” It’s big business for state governments, which carefully guard their lucrative institutions with a fortress of legislation, regulation, and bureaucracy.
Unlike other games of chance, where winners are determined by chance alone, the lottery is structured to reward winning players by a combination of luck and skill. It’s an ingenious scheme, and it has worked brilliantly—the average American spends about $320 a year on tickets. But it’s also a remarkably unequal enterprise.
Research shows that lottery sales are closely linked to economic fluctuation; they spike when incomes fall, unemployment rises, or poverty rates surge. And, as with all commercial products, lottery marketing is overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income communities.
Lottery revenues are used for a wide range of public services, from public safety to local schools, and many governments use a percentage of proceeds to fund higher education. But the distribution of those funds is profoundly inequitable, as evidenced by an investigation conducted by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland. The researchers found that lottery retailers disproportionately cluster in lower-income neighborhoods, and that the majority of retailers are black or Latino.