The Tax On People Who Are Bad at Math

The Lottery: The Tax On People Who Are Bad at Math
Ambrose Bierce defined the lottery as “a tax on people who are bad at math,” but it’s really a tax on the dreams of the poor.

Last year Americans spent $70 billion on state-sponsored lottery tickets, more than on books, video games, movies and sporting events combined. The poorest third of households buy half of all lottery tickets, and state lotteries advertise most aggressively in poor neighborhoods, as Derek Thompson points out in The Atlantic.

Why do the poor play the lottery?

“It’s not that poor people don’t understand that the lottery has a near-zero chance of making them dynastically wealthy. It’s that they think everything else has an actually-zero chance. ….  State lotteries, in other words, don’t just prey on poor people’s dreams—they do that for everyone—but rather on desperate dreams.”

— “Why you should never, ever play the lottery,” Matt O’Brien, Washington Post


“The State-Sponsored Lottery: A Failure of Policy and Ethics,” Elizabeth Winslow McAuliffe, Public Integrity

“Mega Failure: Why Lotteries Are A Bad Bet For State Budgets,” Pat Garofalo, Think Progress


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Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht,

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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One Response to “The Tax On People Who Are Bad at Math”

  1. galkamax Says:

    Good post. While it is absolutely a tax on the dreams of the poor, perhaps a more accurate description is as a tax on addicts and their families (most of whom are poor).

    I only make the distinction because some people misinterpret it and think lots of poor people are playing, which means they must just be stupid.

    In reality, not that many poor people play. The money comes from a smallish percentage of them who are compulsive gamblers.

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