The Truth About the Lottery

Whether you’re applying for a job, buying a house or even choosing a college, your chances of success depend on luck. It’s no wonder that so many people believe that the lottery is a good way to improve your life by winning a big prize, like a new car or cash.

The casting of lots has a long and varied history in human culture, including several instances in the Bible. The first recorded public lotteries to offer tickets in exchange for prize money began in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, when towns held them to raise funds for wall repairs and the poor.

Lotteries have become increasingly common in recent centuries, largely because of the proliferation of television and the Internet, which make it possible to play for money from almost anywhere. But while the lottery is a popular form of gambling, its growth has prompted concerns about its effect on the poor and problem gamblers. And because it is run as a business with a primary objective of increasing revenues, it has to advertise in ways that might be seen as misleading or even exploitative.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, state governments used lotteries to fund a variety of public projects, including colleges. But the real turning point came in the nineteen-sixties, when the burgeoning cost of social services and the aging baby boomers put states in budget crises that they could not solve by raising taxes or cutting programs. This was the moment when a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling industry met with a need for new sources of revenue, and the modern lottery was born.

By the late twentieth century, a growing number of people were in favor of legalizing lotteries. They argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so governments might as well reap the profits. This view was supported by economists who viewed lotteries as a less harmful alternative to income taxation and by political strategists who believed that white voters would support the lottery if they thought their money was helping poor black families.

But in the end, the lottery was a gamble that didn’t pay off. For one thing, it didn’t attract enough players to offset the huge tax burden on a winner and for another, it didn’t help poor families. Moreover, the alleged risks of the lottery—including its regressive effects on lower-income groups and its addiction-inducing advertising—proved more serious than expected. By the early twenty-first century, the popularity of the lottery had waned. But some states—like New Hampshire and California, both known for their antipathy to tax increases—were still willing to give it a try.