Acton Institute Powerblog

The Lottery as Aspirational Insurance

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Whether the lottery is, as the old adage states, a tax on people who are bad at math, it is most certainly a tax on the poor. Those who have the least spend an inordinate percentage of their income every year on lottery tickets (estimates vary from 4-9%). Yet while it is irrational for those in poverty to waste their limited resources on a one in 176 million chance, there is something almost rational in the reasoning for doing so. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out:

For the desperately poor, lotteries perform a role not unlike the obverse of insurance. Rather than pay a small sum of money in exchange for the guarantee of protection that you’ll need in the future, you pay a small sum of money in exchange for the small probability that you’ll win money to help your lot right away. It is, for lack of a better term, a kind of aspirational insurance.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to improve one’s lot in life. But as Jordan Ballor has explained, the problem with such lotteries is that they allow the state to prey on the poor:

The insidiousness of state lotteries comes with government involvement in the industry. What begins as a well-intentioned plan to provide for the needs of the people – education funding for example – very often becomes just another source of revenue for a voracious state treasury. Lotto revenue is often diverted for new purposes through legislative and bureaucratic chicanery.

The highly promotional nature of state lotteries becomes clear as they bombard us with advertising in every available medium. When jackpots get particularly large, the media blitz becomes a frenzy, as the government-run lotteries attempt to dazzle us into the 21 st century form of “gold fever.” For the Feb. 20, multi-state Mega Millions lottery, Michigan officials tempted players with the promise of “$24,300 per day!” in a press release that described winning the jackpot as “a pretty nice payday.” In this way, state lottery boards and commissions “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15 NIV).

Read more . . .

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • I sort of disagree that the lottery preys on the poor.  People choose to play of their own freedom and for fun. There’s a chance to win a ridiculous amount of money.  The odds are beyond awful, but I’m sure most people know that.  It also happens to bring in a lot of funding for the government and that’s the reason it is done in the first place, but they’re not forcing us to play.

    • Lotteries are regressive; there’s no disputing that. And as Jared notes, that people “freely” choose to do it is nigh upon irrelevant. The point is not so much about the nature of the act (coerced vs. uncoerced, incentivized vs. unincentivized), but rather with the state’s role in monopolizing and promoting lottery gambling.

  • Jared

    David, aside from the difficulty in arguing that a thing can’t be wrong simply because someone is not physically coerced to do so, I take exception with the idea that its’ provision of government funding somehow baptizes the whole operation. When does the need for money ever make an action acceptable? And this is beside the fact that when government does this sort of thing for funding, it is essentially relying upon the poor (who buy a disproportionately large percentage of lottery tickets) to make horrible financial decisions.

    There is also the further difficulty in that there is absolutely no question now as to the result of lotteries. We know beyond doubt that people will make bad financial decisions in order to purchase false hope–that whether or not they can actually afford to buy lottery tickets, they will buy them anyway. The lottery is not bad in and of itself, but the moral status of lotteries can change dramatically depending on the circumstances. It would be quite horrible, for example, if someone started a business selling alcohol just outside of AA meetings. Not because selling alcohol is wrong, but because the moral requirements on society and members of a society necessarily change depending on circumstances.

  • eric schansberg

    Two thoughts/questions:

    Is it the lottery per se– or the State’s monopoly power over the lottery (and exploitation of it)– that’s in mind here? 

    When we claim that a voluntary action is coerced in large part, what does this say about our view of the dignity of the human person?

    • For my part, my biggest moral complaint is about the state’s monopolization and promotion of lotteries as a form of civic virtue (this is related to but different than the economic argument about the regressive nature of state-run lotteries). 

      The claim isn’t so much that the state “coerces” anyone to play the lottery (although it certainly forbids competition from private enterprises on that score), but rather that it hypocritically claims the responsibility to restrict lottery gambling, except insofar as the money flows into its coffers rather than that of a private lottery. Gambling in at least some cases doesn’t seem to be clearly immoral; but it’s hard to see how and why the government should be promoting it as if participation is somehow an expression of good citizenship.

  • eric schansberg

    Many things are “regressive” in this sense, including clothing, food, and contributions to churches. So, the questions are not regressivity per se, but the belief that certain things are “not good for people”, based on fraud / misinformation, etc. Could a pagan use the same sort of argument to complain about the poor giving money to churches?

    In any case, we should be cautious about using terms like “tax” to describe (largely?) voluntary behaviors.

    • I don’t think I called it a “tax” anywhere, and certainly it isn’t a tax properly speaking. Most often I’ve heard it referred to colloquially as a “tax on the stupid” or a “stupidity tax.” Joe can describe for himself what sense he meant to refer to it as a tax at the top of this post. 

      I’m curious how you mean to say that contributions to churches are regressive. Such donations are possibly regressive, but I don’t see how they are necessarily. And it’s of course a truism that the poor can afford just about anything to a lesser extent than the rich.

      But I think it is at least defensible that lotteries are regressive in a characteristic way that “preys” on the poor, to use language from some of my previous writing on it, in a way that the simple economics of clothing, food, shelter, and charitable contributions are not.

      • eric schansberg

        Right; maybe I put my comment in the wrong place! ;-) I was replying directly to Joe who opened with the idea that the lottery is a “tax” on the poor. The most defensible angles on the “tax” claim are the artificial monopoly (as when the govt does that to consumers in any realm) and potential fraud (people are misled about its rate-of-return).

        If participation in the lottery is (largely) voluntary and we ignore the monopoly/tax point (as we usually do; how often do we hear govt monopolies described as imposing “taxes”?), then we’re presumably using the term “regressive” in its objective sense (as income rises, spending on X as a % of income decreases). In this sense, spending on food, clothing, and voluntary contributions (including those to churches) are “regressive”.

        Through similar logic, many pagans would argue that the Church preys on the poor. As I point out in my discussion of gambling in Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left, among other things, we should be careful with criticisms of gambling that look eerily similar to what a pagan would say/think about our behavior.

        • If I understand your point correctly, the linkage between lottery spending and charitable contributions is that both are “regressive,” in that the greater a person’s income, the lower the share of income devoted to that is.

          I’ve seen a fair amount showing that the lottery is regressive in this sense (and “tax” is again probably too strong a word); can you show that Christians (or citizens generally) are “regressive” in their giving patterns? It wouldn’t surprise me to find that at least in some cases or in some areas rich Christians actually give away a larger proportion of their income than poorer; or at least it’s not obvious to me why giving is necessarily regressive.

          Presumably a tithe would not be regressive in this way, although I understand of course that not many Xians relatively speaking actually tithe and there is some debate as to whether this is a binding standard of giving or not.

          • eric schansberg

            There’s plenty of data on charitable contributions being regressive in this sense– that people with higher incomes give away a smaller percentage. (Interestingly, this is despite the fact that the poor receive little or no tax benefit from their contributions.) I’m almost positive that the same holds for church giving, but I’m not quite as confident about that assertion.