The Hidden History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling where prizes are allocated by drawing lots. Lotteries have a long history. The casting of lots for decisions and fates has been a feature of human society since ancient times, with the first recorded public lottery to award money prizes appearing in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders. In colonial America, the lottery played a significant role in financing both private and public ventures, including roads, libraries, churches, schools, canals, bridges, and even Benjamin Franklin’s unsuccessful attempt to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British during the American Revolution.

Despite its popularity, the lottery has not proved to be as good at raising government revenue as other vice taxes such as alcohol and tobacco. Moreover, lottery play has never correlated with state governments’ actual fiscal health, as it can win broad public support even when the state is financially sound. Rather, it appears that lotteries benefit the states that sponsor them by recasting state taxes as a “tax on luck.”

Although many people gamble for fun, there’s also an inextricable human impulse to hope for a better tomorrow. It’s why we see billboards advertising huge jackpots and why we buy tickets at the gas station. The problem is, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about.

Lottery commissions try to keep it secret, but there are two main messages that they’re pushing. One is that playing the lottery makes you feel good about yourself because it’s a civic duty to support the state and the children. And the other is that you’ll win if you stick to a certain strategy, like choosing numbers that aren’t close together and avoiding those that have sentimental value, or pooling your money with others.

Both of these messages are aimed at the middle class. Studies have shown that the bulk of lottery players and revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods, while low-income and high-income neighborhoods play far less. This is in contrast to other vice taxes, such as sin taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, which tend to benefit the poor more than the wealthy.

But while these messages appeal to the middle class, they are flawed. In addition to encouraging gambling, they erode the sense of fairness in the system by promoting a lottery that gives the impression that it’s just as random and unfair as other forms of gambling. And they also mislead the public by presenting false information about the odds of winning the lottery, inflating the value of jackpots (because they are paid in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value), and promising that “luck” will eventually change your life for the better. The truth is, luck rarely does change lives for the better, but it can sure make them worse. And that’s why it should be stopped.