The Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets for the chance to win a prize, usually a large sum of money. It is also a common means of fundraising for charities and other public projects. Americans spend over $80 billion annually on lotteries. While the odds of winning are slim, people continue to play because they are drawn to the prospect of instant riches. However, it is important to remember that the money you spend on lottery tickets could be better spent on emergency savings or paying down credit card debt.

In early America, lotteries were a popular way to raise funds for private and public ventures. They were so widespread that they became a point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who viewed them as little riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would prove to be the essential logic of lotteries: that all “would prefer a small chance of gaining much to a great chance of losing very much.”

These early American lotteries were often tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways, but they played an important role nonetheless, funding colleges, canals, roads, and even the expedition against Canada. They were also a major source of revenue during the Revolutionary War, with the colonies sponsoring more than 200 lotteries between 1744 and 1776.

After World War II, states began adopting lotteries to finance an ever-expanding array of services without raising taxes. As Cohen writes, state legislators viewed them as “budgetary miracles—the chance for a government to make money appear out of thin air” and free it from the need to ask voters to approve higher sales or income taxes.

In the immediate post-World War II period, when many Americans were still recovering from the financial hardships of the Depression and World War II, this arrangement largely worked. But by the late nineteen-eighties, as the economy slowed, lotteries’ gilded luster wore off and voters turned against them.

Today, lotteries try to sell themselves by playing up their entertainment value and promoting the idea that they are a fun and harmless form of gambling. They have also moved away from arguing that a lottery would float an entire state’s budget and toward more narrow claims that it could cover a single line item, invariably a popular, nonpartisan government service like education or elder care. This strategy makes legalization campaigns easier and it gives advocates a clearer sense of what they’re advocating for: not just a new game, but a fundamental change in how government does business.