The Lottery is Not Just a Gamble


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners. This practice has a long history, with biblical examples (such as God instructing Moses to take a census of the people of Israel and distribute their land by lot), and Roman emperors using it as an entertaining activity at Saturnalian feasts. The modern lottery is a popular form of public gambling and a major source of state government revenue.

Generally speaking, the money from the tickets goes to prizes and operating costs. The rest is allocated for various purposes by each state. In some states, this includes funding for education and senior citizen programs. Others use the funds to help those struggling with gambling addictions or other social problems.

Many of the same arguments that state governments use to justify their lotteries have been used since they began to appear in the 18th century: it is a low-cost way to raise revenue; it will allow states to expand their array of social safety net services without increasing taxes on middle- and working-class families; and it is an attractive alternative to higher-income sources of revenue, such as cigarette taxes.

Yet, there is another factor that is often overlooked: The lottery is not just a gamble; it also dangles the prospect of instant wealth for people who feel they have been failed by a system that offers them few opportunities for economic mobility. That can create a sense of hopelessness and the false sense that winning the lottery, however improbable, is their only way out.