The Myth of Merit and the Lottery

It’s an inextricable part of our culture, but the lottery isn’t just a money-maker. It also plays a crucial role in bolstering the myth of meritocracy and our ever-growing desire to be rich. It reframes our sense of what’s possible and where our luck lies—and what isn’t.

In the fourteenth century, the Dutch were using lotteries to build town fortifications and support charity; by the sixteenth, they had become a common feature of life in England, where prizes often included human beings. And in early America, a lottery winner named Denmark Vesey used his winnings to purchase his freedom and foment a slave rebellion.

Lotteries work by a simple formula: People pay a small amount of money to try and win a big one. They may think the odds aren’t that great, but they still want to play—and, as our history demonstrates, the jackpots keep getting bigger and bigger.

And while it’s easy to understand why, at a deep level, we all want to be rich, the truth is that most people do not become wealthy through the lottery. The average American winner, in fact, goes bankrupt within a couple of years, and the vast majority of those who have won big end up losing it all.

But that’s not what lotteries tell you, at least not in their advertising. They rely on two messages primarily: First, they’re fun and you should buy a ticket. And second, they’re good for you because they raise money for the state. Both of those messages obscure how regressive the games are. They don’t take into account the fact that the poor and the working class are the heaviest lottery players and spend a large percentage of their incomes on tickets.