Lotteries are a kind of gambling where people pay to have the chance to win money or goods. They’re popular in Europe and in the United States, where they raise billions of dollars per year. Some state governments also use them to distribute subsidized housing units and kindergarten placements. But despite their popularity, the lottery is a dangerous tool that can destroy lives and create dependency. It’s a game that lures participants with promises of transforming their lives with just one lucky roll of the dice. The problem is, the chances of winning are extremely slim – there’s a greater likelihood of being struck by lightning or becoming a multimillionaire through an inheritance.
The roots of lotteries go back a long way. They were common in the Roman Empire – Nero was a big fan, for example – and they’re attested to throughout the Bible. The casting of lots is used to decide everything from who gets Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion to the distribution of property in the New Testament. Often, however, these early lotteries were no more than a party game. They were often accompanied by dinner parties at which guests would receive tickets, some of which carried extravagant prizes. During the Roman Saturnalia, for example, winners might get items such as fancy dinnerware or furniture.
In the nineteenth century, Americans began to use the lottery as a tax-exempt mechanism to support public works projects. Lottery money helped build Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth, among other institutions. It also paid for the Continental Congress’s attempt to launch a revolutionary war against Britain in 1776. Privately organized lotteries continued to be popular, allowing wealthy entrepreneurs to sell products or properties for more than they could otherwise afford by paying the equivalent of a voluntary tax.
By the late twentieth century, states were increasingly dependent on the money they raised through lotteries. They also wanted to expand social services, but didn’t want to impose new taxes. Lotteries allowed them to do so by creating a new source of revenue that they promised wouldn’t affect the middle class and working classes too much.
Lottery officials today rely on two messages to justify the games to their customers. The first is that buying a ticket is a low-risk investment; the second is that lotteries are “good for the state” because they help fund schools and such. These messages are misleading, because they obscure the regressivity of lottery play.
They’re also dangerous because they promote the myth that purchasing a ticket is an act of civic duty, which masks how many lottery players spend a large proportion of their incomes on tickets. In addition, the fact that the jackpots grow to apparently newsworthy amounts entices more people to play and drives up sales.
Lottery commissions should stop hiding behind these myths and face the facts. The reality is that lottery players contribute billions to state coffers that they could have been using to save for their retirement or children’s college tuition.