The Truth About the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. Whether regulated by the government or privately run, it is common for lottery participants to pay a small sum of money in order to participate in a drawing and have a chance at winning a larger prize.

The earliest known lotteries date to ancient times. In the Old Testament, Moses is instructed to take a census of Israel and then divide the land by lot; and Roman emperors used the practice to give away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. Later, lotteries were introduced to the United States by British colonists. They were originally viewed as mechanisms for obtaining “voluntary taxes” and helped build many American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and Brown.

While Lottery does benefit some public services, like education, it is a very regressive way to raise revenue. In a recent study, I found that lottery proceeds are more than three times higher for low-income than for high-income households. In addition, disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite individuals are playing the lottery.

The messages that lottery commissions rely on to encourage people to play are mainly about the experience of scratching a ticket, and implying that it’s a fun thing to do. That obscures how regressive it is and hides how much money people spend on lottery tickets.