Lottery, in simplest terms, is the process of distributing something (usually money or prizes) among people by chance. Modern examples include the financial lottery, in which players pay a small fee to select numbers or symbols (or have machines spit them out) for a chance to win large prizes, and the “social” lottery, in which participants compete for things such as housing units in a subsidized apartment complex or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. The word “lottery” also has a broader historical meaning, involving the casting of lots for everything from determining God’s will to distributing property.
Throughout history, people have gotten involved with lotteries to raise money for things ranging from public works projects to prison sentences. The lottery’s early days were often tangled up with slave trade or other social issues. For example, the Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of Israel and distribute land by lot; and Roman emperors used the lottery to give away goods and even slaves.
In the 1500s, European countries began establishing regular lotteries to raise money for wars and public works. In England, lottery play became a popular form of entertainment and an important source of revenue. It also helped finance American colonization, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Lotteries made their way into the United States as well, though many states initially banned them.
By the nineteen-sixties, a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business combined with budget crises prompted states to start running lotteries. The appeal of the game has since spread across the country, with Americans spending over $80 billion annually on tickets.
As the popularity of the lottery continues to grow, so do concerns over its impact on society. Studies suggest that young children and teens who receive scratch-off tickets as gifts are at greater risk for developing problem gambling later in life. And, as a recent study in the Journal of Community Psychology suggests, lottery outlets are more likely to be located in neighborhoods with high concentrations of minorities—who are at increased risk for problem gambling.
A lottery is a dangerous form of gambling because it deceives players into thinking they’re making a reasonable decision based on the odds of winning. Despite what you may have heard, the chances of winning are the same for every ticket sold—whether you’ve chosen the numbers 1, 5, and 7 or not. The numbers just appear more frequently in certain drawings than others.
And while rich people do play the lottery (one Powerball jackpot was a quarter of a billion dollars) and the poor spend far more than the wealthy on tickets—as much as thirteen percent of their annual income—many believe the game is fair. After all, if someone wins the lottery, there must be somebody left behind, right? This false hope obscures the regressive nature of lottery play and the ugly underbelly of what it is really doing to our society.