Did you buy tickets for the $1.35 billion Powerball lottery? You are clearly not alone. Nearly all states have lotteries that millions of people take part in. And over the past several years, similar events — such as the $326 million Mega Millions drawing — have also gotten people to purchase lottery tickets.
But in a segment from 2014, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver made a strong case against state-backed lotteries like the Powerball.
Among Oliver's more startling findings is that Americans spend more on lotteries than the NFL, video games, music, movie tickets, Major League Baseball, and pornography combined. "Which basically means Americans spent more on the lottery than they spent on America," he quipped.
States sell their lotteries as harmless games that promote the social good by providing money to schools.
But Oliver emphasizes what can be so easy to forget amid all those ads: Lotteries are gambling, and they can create the same kind of painful addiction that any casino can. Lotteries are also in the business of selling hope to people — particularly low-income people — despite having astoundingly low odds of winning. Indeed, studies have found that lottery sales are correlated with both unemployment and poverty rates.
The result is a state program that essentially runs on false hope: Despite the extremely low chances of winning, state-run lotteries make people feel like they have a chance to strike rich and help schools in the process.
"Gambling is a little like alcohol: Most people like it, some are addicted to it, and it's not like the state can or should outlaw it altogether," Oliver said. "But it would be a little strange if the state was in the liquor business, advertising it by claiming that every shot of vodka you drink helps schoolchildren learn."