Lottery is a game of chance in which people pay money for the privilege of attempting to win a prize by drawing lots. The prizes are often cash or goods, but they may also be services like free vacations, college tuition, or even lifelong medical care. Some people consider lottery play to be harmless, while others regard it as a morally wrong waste of time. In the past, lottery profits have helped finance schools, hospitals, and road improvements. In some countries, lottery revenue is a substantial share of state budgets.
Lotteries are a very ancient practice; they are documented in the Bible and have been used to determine everything from the winner of a sporting event to the identity of a biblical character. But modern lotteries, as most are known, are run by government agencies and sell tickets to raise money for various public purposes. The money is then distributed to winners who are selected by a random process.
The popularity of the lottery has soared over recent years, in part because it has become increasingly easy to enter online. In fact, about 50 percent of Americans play the lottery at least once a year. But the players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. Many buy a ticket for one big drawing and then never play again, whereas some buy tickets every week. And the overall number of participants is rising, even as other forms of gambling decline.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, American colonists used lotteries to finance private and public projects—roads, canals, churches, colleges, libraries, and more. During the French and Indian War, colonists used lotteries to fund their militias and expeditions against Canada. Lotteries were even entangled with the slave trade, including the case of Denmark Vesey, a formerly enslaved man who won the South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.
After the end of World War II, states began to rely heavily on the proceeds of lotteries to fund a variety of services. Lotteries seemed to offer a way to float most of a state’s budget without provoking an angry backlash from anti-tax voters. This arrangement lasted for decades, until income inequality grew, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs exploded, and our long-held national promise that hard work and education would make most children better off than their parents ceased to be true for most working families.
Suddenly it became clear that the lottery was not some silver bullet for state governments, and advocates of legalizing it began to gin up new strategies. Instead of arguing that the revenue from a statewide lottery could float the entire budget, they began to argue that it would pay for a single line item—usually something popular and nonpartisan, like education, or roads, or veterans’ benefits. This narrow approach made it easier for legislators to campaign on behalf of the lottery, because a vote in favor was not seen as a vote against social services.