The Risks of Playing the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people place bets on numbers that are drawn at random to win a prize. The prizes can be cash or goods, and the profits for the promoters depend on ticket sales. Lotteries are popular with the public and are an easy way for governments to raise money. While lottery play is often viewed as harmless, it does come with some risks. Here are some tips to help you play safely and responsibly.

The villagers gather at the town hall for the annual lottery, and as they do so, there is banter and bits of gossip about other communities who have stopped holding theirs. An elderly man, something of a town patriarch, doesn’t approve. He quotes a little traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”

Despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling, the lottery spread across England and into America. In fact, the European settlement of America was partially financed through them. In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin ran one to help pay for a battery of guns for defense in Philadelphia, John Hancock organized a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington launched a lottery to fund a road across Virginia’s mountain pass.

While the founding fathers’ support for lotteries may seem quaint, there was a real need for such a funding source at the time. The Revolutionary War was expensive, and state governments were desperately seeking solutions that wouldn’t enrage their increasingly tax-averse constituents. Lotteries fit the bill, and by the nineteenth century they had become the primary source of state revenue.

But, beginning in the 1800s, the same religious and moral sensibilities that turned the tide against prohibition also started to turn against gambling of all kinds. Corruption was a factor as well, with some lottery organizers taking the money and not awarding prizes. “The whole thing really started to wane from about then on,” says Matheson, as people began to lose faith in the idea that they could buy their own freedom with a lottery ticket.

In the twentieth century, states increasingly looked to lotteries as a way to fund infrastructure and other projects that would otherwise be too costly for them to pursue with a regular tax increase. By the nineteen-seventies, when California passed Proposition 13, and in the early years of the Reagan presidency, that resentment of taxes began to accelerate, as did the nation’s obsession with imaginable wealth and its promise of social mobility.

The rise of the lottery, which in many ways mirrored the decline of our long-held national belief in opportunity for all, is an incredibly complex and controversial story. But it is an important one, because it helps explain why we’re now so hung up on winning the lottery, when the chances of doing so are about as good as winning the Powerball. It’s a reminder that the American dream is not just a myth, but a fragile and largely unfulfilled one.