Lottery is a form of gambling in which players attempt to win cash prizes by guessing numbers. The game dates back to the seventeenth century and was derived from a betting game in Genoa, but it is now more common than most other forms of gambling. The most popular lotteries are state-sponsored and earmarked for specific purposes, such as education or public works. But critics argue that lotteries subsidize the poor and divert revenue from needed programs.
The casting of lots has a long record in human history—Nero was a big fan—and it has been used for everything from distributing property to apportioning ecclesiastical positions and even determining Jesus’s garments after the Crucifixion. But it was not until the late fourteenth century that the idea of using lots to distribute wealth became widespread, and even then it was usually deployed as a kind of party entertainment during Saturnalian feasts or other special events. The earliest lottery drawings to give away money were probably organized in the Low Countries in the 15th century, and some of them were designed to raise funds for town fortifications or help the poor.
In the early seventeenth century, colonial America adopted lotteries with gusto. The Continental Congress held one to fund the American Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery in 1776 to try to raise money for cannons. Privately-sponsored lotteries also flourished in the era, helping to build Harvard and Yale and funding a number of other colleges.
But the lottery’s real value lay in its ability to extract “voluntary taxes.” The earliest states promoted their lotteries by emphasizing that they were an alternative to paying property or income taxes, and this argument has been central to its success ever since. The same dynamic is at work today, as states search for solutions to budget crises that will not enrage anti-tax voters. Lotteries provide an attractive option: they are painless, and they develop loyal constituencies, including convenience store owners (who sell the tickets) and suppliers of other products, such as food and fuel, as well as teachers in those states that earmark lottery revenues for education.
But the popularity of lotteries has coincided with a decline in financial security for most Americans, especially since the nineteen-seventies. In that era, wages stagnated and inequality widened, health-care costs increased, retirement benefits eroded, job security disappeared, and the old promise that hard work would allow children to do better than their parents became increasingly less likely. This has fed the fantasy that winning a lottery jackpot represents a path to unimaginable riches and financial security. As a result, most of us spend an average of ten dollars a week on tickets. But what most people don’t understand is that the odds of winning are stacked against them. It is almost impossible to know what your chances are of winning, because the winning numbers are always drawn at random. That is why so many lottery players have quote-unquote systems, such as the use of lucky numbers or buying tickets at specific stores or times of day.