The Lottery and Its Consequences

The drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history, including several instances recorded in the Bible. The lottery as a means of material gain, however, is of more recent origin and may be traced to a single event in Bruges in 1466. Since then, lotteries have become an important source of revenue for governments and for individuals.

Most lotteries involve a random selection of numbers and the prize amount is determined by the number of matching numbers to those drawn. The more numbers matched, the higher the prize. Some lotteries offer a “no-required number” option, in which case players mark a box or section on the playslip to indicate that they accept whatever set of numbers the computer randomly picks.

While the prizes in lotteries can be enormous, many people who play them do not expect to win. Instead, they buy tickets for the chance to dream about what they might do with a big jackpot. The resulting fantasy gives them some short-term entertainment value and the opportunity to think, “What if?”

In addition, the large prize sizes generate a lot of free publicity, which helps promote future ticket sales. The publicity also increases the chances that a jackpot will roll over, which means even more money for the winner and potentially more people buying tickets. The result is that jackpots can grow to newsworthy amounts that may seem hugely unfair to the vast majority of players.

A key factor in gaining and maintaining public approval for lotteries is that the proceeds are seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. This argument is especially effective when state governments are facing fiscal stress and facing the prospect of raising taxes or cutting public programs.

But this approach has a dark side: studies have found that the winners of lotteries are often low-income people, minorities, and those suffering from gambling addiction. Vox recently published an analysis of data from Connecticut, where lotteries are legal and popular, which suggests that the state’s coffers swell thanks to ticket sales but that the money comes at a high price for vulnerable populations.

It is not difficult to understand why the lottery has become a controversial topic, even in the relatively affluent United States. The state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an agency or public corporation to operate the lottery (as opposed to licensing private firms in exchange for a share of the profits); begins operations with a small number of relatively simple games; and then, due to pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its offerings, particularly by adding new games.