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Is the Lottery a Good Thing?

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The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America, with Americans spending upward of $100 billion on tickets last year. Whether it’s to improve their chances of winning the big jackpot, or just to feel like they’re doing something civic, many Americans are drawn to the state-sponsored games. But is the lottery really a good thing?

The answer is a bit complicated. The money that people spend on the lottery does help fund some government services, but it also diverts resources from more important ones. And in many cases, it’s not even the most effective way to raise money for a given state’s budget.

When states first introduced lotteries in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, advocates argued that they allowed them to bolster social safety nets without burdening middle-class and working-class taxpayers. But that was a misleading message. For starters, it ignored the fact that lotteries only generate about two percent of a state’s revenue, a small percentage that cannot offset a reduction in taxes or significantly increase government expenditures. And it also obscured the fact that the era of the lotteries coincided with an intensification of America’s tax revolt, as income inequality widened, job security and pensions declined, health-care costs climbed, and the long-standing national promise that hard work would enable young people to become wealthier than their parents eroded.

Moreover, lotteries have a distinctly regressive character. The winners are almost always affluent, while the players tend to be lower-income and less educated. In a typical state, around 70 to 80 percent of lottery sales come from the top 20 to 30 percent of the player base.

What’s more, the psychological effect of a loss can be far greater than the actual monetary cost of buying a ticket. This is because people tend to underestimate the utility they will get from non-monetary benefits like entertainment, and overestimate how much they will lose. For example, in a study of lottery participation in New Hampshire, researchers found that the average ticketholder spent about $90 on a single ticket—more than they could ever hope to win.

Despite these flaws, the lottery remains a fixture in American life. And though it may be difficult to put a price on the joy and excitement of playing, the reality is that the lottery has a profoundly negative impact on society. The lottery is a reminder of the deep-seated deceit and evil that lies at the root of human nature. This lesson is conveyed in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” a tale that depicts the sins of humanity in an ordinary setting.

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