The Problem With the Lottery
A lottery is an activity in which participants purchase chances to win a prize, usually money or goods. It is also a method of raising funds, such as for charity or public works projects, by selling tickets to the general public. The word comes from the Italian lotto, a variant of Frankish or some other Germanic source (compare Old English and Old Frisian hlot).
A state’s lottery revenues are not insignificant. But a major problem with the lottery is that people who play it spend a very large share of their incomes on tickets. And the way that state lottery commissions promote their games obscures that fact and makes it sound as though playing the lottery is just a harmless pastime, not an activity with very real costs to families and communities.
The lottery is the largest form of gambling in America, and people spend about $100 billion a year on ticket purchases. It’s a form of gambling that defies logic, but there is something about the human impulse to take a chance and hope for an unearned windfall. I have interviewed people who have been playing the lottery for years, who spend $50, $100 a week on tickets. They are people in the 21st through 60th percentile of income distribution, and they spend a very large share of their discretionary spending on lottery tickets. And they do so even though they know that the odds of winning are bad. They do it because they are committed gamblers and they have an inextricable urge to try to beat the odds.
Whether we’re talking about a state’s lottery or the apophoreta, a dinner entertainment in ancient Rome during which a host gave wood pieces with symbols on them to guests and then held a drawing for prizes that could be carried home, the idea of something being decided by chance has been a popular one throughout history. Moses’s instruction that the Israelites should divide their land by lot is one of many biblical examples, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves.
In the early modern period, lotteries began to appear in Europe as a way to raise revenue for towns and cities, and for military campaigns. They were especially popular in France, where Louis XIV’s court organized several private lotteries that were widely supported by his subjects.
The lottery can take a number of forms, including a fixed sum or a percentage of total receipts. The latter is a more common format and allows the prize fund to grow as ticket sales increase. In either case, the organizers will bear a risk if insufficient tickets are sold to justify the prize amount or if ticket sales decline. It’s an arrangement that has been well established in Europe and the United States, although it remains controversial in other parts of the world. Lotteries may also be conducted on an informal basis, such as at a public event or on the Internet.