Is the Lottery a Tax on Low-Income People?

Almost everyone in the United States buys a lottery ticket on occasion. A few do it on a daily basis. For most people, it’s just a bit of fun, a chance to fantasize about winning a fortune at the cost of a couple bucks. But for others, the game is a real budget drain. Numerous studies show that low-income people make up a disproportionate share of players, and critics claim it’s nothing more than a disguised tax on those who can least afford it.

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery reveals the pervasive nature of evil in small-town life, even in places that seem to be safe and friendly. It also suggests that if people don’t oppose an injustice, it will continue. This is a major theme of the story, and it’s an important reminder that it is up to individuals to stand up against a status quo that is unjust.

The idea behind the lottery is that it floats a state’s budget with “painless” revenue, the profits from ticket sales being used to fund a government service. That’s the argument that’s been put forward by lottery advocates for decades, and it is why nearly all state governments now run them. It’s a persuasive argument that plays into the naive beliefs of many voters, and that is why it has been so successful.

There is a problem with this, however. In the modern era, the lottery has been found to only generate a very small percentage of its promised funds. As a result, advocates of legalizing it have had to gin up other strategies for selling it. They’ve repackaged it as a means of funding a specific line item, usually some kind of popular, nonpartisan government service like education, elder care, or public parks. This approach has the advantage of making it easier to campaign for, since a vote for the lottery can be framed as a vote for something other than gambling.

But there’s a problem with this, too: the more the odds of winning the jackpot decrease, the more people want to play. The reason for this is simple: humans prefer a small chance of getting a big prize to a large chance of getting nothing. It’s why Alexander Hamilton endorsed the New York lottery with one-in-three-million odds, and Thomas Jefferson hated it.

As a result, the vast majority of lottery tickets are sold to people who don’t need them, and that includes those with the lowest incomes. This has led some to call the lottery a hidden tax on the poor, and it’s true that for those who can barely afford it, playing regularly is indeed a big expense. But the fact is, that’s what all lotteries are: a tax on people who can least afford to pay it. And that’s a shame. The fact is, there are better ways to spend state money.