The Growing Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to win prizes. It is a common source of revenue for state governments, and many people play it regularly. Although the odds of winning are very low, some people find it satisfying to indulge in the fantasy that they might become rich by the stroke of luck. However, the truth is that lottery play tends to be a waste of money for most people. This is because the chances of winning are based on random chance, and as such cannot be predicted by any mathematical model.

Lotteries were widely used in the seventeenth century as a way to raise money for a variety of public purposes, including war efforts and building colleges. They were popular in Europe and the United States, where they were often viewed as a painless form of taxation because players voluntarily spent their money, rather than having it confiscated by force. In the United States, the first lotteries were private, but in 1776 the Continental Congress voted to establish a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary cause, and Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to sell cannons for the city of Philadelphia. George Washington participated in a private lottery in 1768, offering land and slaves as prizes, and the newspaper the Boston Mercantile Journal carried rare tickets bearing his signature that have become collector items.

In the 1970s, a number of innovations in lottery games dramatically changed the industry. These included instant games, which offered smaller prizes and lower jackpots but had higher odds of winning. Moreover, the increasing use of electronic systems has made it possible for people to buy tickets in advance, rather than having to wait weeks or months for a drawing. The result has been a continuing expansion of the lottery in terms of new games and jackpot sizes, with a corresponding increase in promotional expenditures.

Despite these trends, lottery critics argue that the expansion of lotteries is problematic for several reasons. First, it raises concerns about the overall desirability of gambling and about the impact on problem gamblers and on poor communities. Second, it suggests that the state is acting at cross-purposes with its general welfare goals.

Finally, lotteries also raise questions about the ability of government at any level to manage an activity from which it profits. Lottery advocates point to its popularity and the fact that it enables a state to generate revenue without raising taxes, but the reality is that lottery revenues typically peak quickly, then level off and may even decline. In addition, the constant pressure to increase revenues has led to a proliferation of additional forms of legalized gambling in all fifty states. This dynamic is particularly disturbing in an era when so many people oppose the idea of state-sponsored gambling and are reluctant to raise taxes in any way. This article was adapted from an essay that originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of HarperCollins Magazine.