What is the Lottery?


Lottery is a scheme for the distribution of prizes, usually money, by chance or the drawing of lots. During the Roman Saturnalia, for instance, guests at lavish dinner parties would draw tickets to determine what kind of gifts they would receive. The practice was also popular in medieval Europe, where it was often used to raise funds for town fortifications. In the early twentieth century, lotteries proliferated in America, both legal and illegal, with Black communities especially eager to play because it provided a much-needed source of income.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate. It was in this sense that the game was originally conceived. The modern form of the game started to emerge in the nineteen sixties, when growing awareness of the huge profits to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Thanks to soaring population growth, rising inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, states could no longer balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services, both options being deeply unpopular with voters.

So, in the nineteen sixties, the rich and powerful decided to turn to the lottery to make their money. The idea was that it would be a low-cost way to get rid of all the extra wealth they had amassed after World War II, and that by doing so they would avoid the politically toxic option of increasing taxes.

What’s more, they knew that there was an inextricable human impulse to gamble, and that the lottery offered a relatively safe and harmless outlet for it. That, they thought, would make it an effective tool for lowering taxes and providing services for the middle class.

Hence the big prize, and the lurid advertising campaigns. The message that lottery commissions are trying to send is one of glitz and glamour, which obscures its regressivity and the fact that it’s a hugely popular game among the very poor. People who, on average, spend a percentage of their annual incomes on tickets.

The other thing that lottery commissioners are trying to do is make the odds of winning smaller and smaller, thereby encouraging even more people to play. This has been a hugely successful strategy, and it’s why we now see billboards that feature Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots of mind-boggling amounts of money. It’s also why people have these quote-unquote systems, which are not based on statistical reasoning, about lucky numbers and stores and the best times to buy tickets.