What is a Lottery?
A lottery is a game in which participants pay money to be entered into a drawing for prizes. The prize may be anything from a unit in a subsidized housing complex to kindergarten placements at a desirable public school. Most lotteries are state-sponsored, and the games typically generate large jackpots that attract a great deal of attention from the media. Those super-sized jackpots are not only a key driver of lottery sales but also give the games a valuable windfall in free publicity, which helps keep them on the news.
In modern times, the lottery has become a popular way for states to raise money and pay for programs without increasing taxes, which are often unpopular with voters. The idea is that if enough people participate in the lottery, it can produce winning numbers more frequently than would occur if only a small number of people participated. But the real reason for this is that governments need revenue. In the late nineteen-sixties, America’s economic prosperity began to wane as inflation and population growth pushed up government costs and strained state budgets. The federal government was no longer able to support a generous social safety net, and states needed to find ways to make ends meet.
The first state-run lotteries began in the fourteenth century, and by the seventeenth century they were common in England and in the colonies, despite strict Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Tickets cost ten shillings (a hefty sum back then) and included the name of the bettor, the amount staked, and a number or symbols that could be chosen in a drawing. The organizers of the lottery shuffled and sorted the tickets and then drew winners from among them, allowing the bettor to discover whether or not his ticket had won a prize at a later date.
Lotteries have always been a popular form of gambling because they are convenient and cheap for states to organize, while providing an opportunity for people to win valuable possessions such as property or even slaves. The enslaved Denmark Vesey, for instance, purchased his freedom from a lottery in Virginia in the eighteenth century, and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both avid fans of these games.
But there is a more important message that lottery commissions have come to rely on in the age of mass consumerism, and that is the promise of instant riches. Lotteries sell this message by advertising that anyone can win and that playing is a harmless pastime, but they are obscuring the regressivity of their operation. People who play the lottery are spending a substantial percentage of their incomes on a hope that they can change their lives overnight, and this is not an insignificant problem. It is time to stop this charade and put it in perspective. In fact, it’s more important than ever to do so.