Acton Institute Powerblog

The Lottery as Aspirational Insurance

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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).

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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).

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