The Ugly Underbelly of Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which players purchase chances to win prizes based on random selection. Prizes may include cash or goods. Many states have legalized the lottery, and it is an important source of revenue. Some people try to increase their odds of winning by buying multiple tickets or using various strategies. The odds of winning the lottery vary, depending on how many tickets are sold and what the jackpot amount is.

In colonial America, public lotteries raised money for private and public projects. Benjamin Franklin organized several such lotteries, selling tickets called “Pieces of Eight” to fund the purchase of cannons for Philadelphia. George Washington was a manager for Col. Bernard Moore’s “Slave Lottery” in 1769, which advertised land and slaves as prizes in the Virginia Gazette. In the era following the Revolutionary War, state governments relied heavily on lotteries to raise funds for public works projects such as roads and canals.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate,” and its French equivalent, loterie, was borrowed from Middle Dutch lotinge, probably a calque of Middle Low German lotin. In English, the spelling was later standardized to lottery. In the United States, the term is often shortened to just lotto, but the broader sense of “fateful choice” or “chance allotment” remains in use.

While the exact origin of the word is not known, it is clear that there has been a long tradition of lotteries in Europe and the United States. The word is also a diminutive of the Latin noun lottere, which refers to a drawing of lots to determine a distribution of property or wealth.

Until the 1960s, states relied on lotteries to finance public services without imposing particularly onerous taxes on the working class. Lotteries were seen as a way to expand social safety nets and improve educational opportunities for the poor without raising taxes significantly. The advent of the 1960s and the rising cost of the Vietnam War put that arrangement in jeopardy, however, and it eventually crumbled.

The ugly underbelly of the lottery is that it is regressive, and even though its supporters argue that it is not as bad as income taxes, that claim has little credibility. Among other things, it ignores the fact that most lottery tickets are purchased by lower-income and less educated Americans. As a result, the lottery is a form of redistribution that benefits some and hurts others.

Despite the controversy, most state legislatures continue to sanction lotteries, and the American Gaming Association estimates that Americans spend more on the lottery than on all forms of legalized gambling combined. While the lottery is not as popular as it once was, it still accounts for a significant share of state revenues. Some states are even considering legalizing online lotteries, which could significantly increase the industry’s revenue.