The Lottery – A Growing Source of Political Controversy


The lottery is America’s most popular form of gambling. Its revenues have exploded since New Hampshire introduced the first modern state lotteries in 1964. But the lottery’s popularity comes at a price: Many low-income people lose more than they win. Some states have attempted to counter this trend by limiting prizes or lowering odds, but the results have been mixed. The fact remains that the lottery has become a fundamental part of the American landscape, and a growing source of political controversy.

The concept of drawing numbers to determine a prize goes back to ancient times. It was used by the Romans, for example, to award a share of the spoils during Saturnalia celebrations, and by Jews and Christians as a way to divine God’s will. The game was even used in the American Revolution, when Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

By the fourteenth century, public lotteries were common in the Low Countries, raising money for town fortifications and to help the poor. Eventually, the practice spread to England and then to the colonies, where state-sponsored lotteries helped finance European settlement of America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, privately organized lotteries arose as a mechanism for selling goods and property for more than could be obtained through regular sales. Privately run lotteries also helped finance early American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union and William and Mary.

In most states, the lottery is not a tax but a voluntary contribution that helps the local community. The amount of the prize is based on how many tickets are sold, the odds of winning, and other factors. The prizes are advertised to encourage participation, but they must be weighed against the risk of losing money. The vast majority of lottery players are middle-class. However, the lottery draws disproportionately few participants from low-income neighborhoods. In addition, research suggests that the number of lottery players declines with higher levels of formal education.

A major message that lottery officials rely on is that buying a ticket helps the community. The problem with this is that it glosses over the fact that the lottery imposes significant costs on society and does not necessarily raise a great deal of money for the state. Moreover, the percentage of state budgets that lottery proceeds make up is far lower than for most other types of gambling.

The next time you’re at the gas station and see the lottery machine, don’t be tempted to buy a ticket. Instead, check a website for the latest information on which games are paying out and when the jackpots were last reset. It is also a good idea to check how long each scratch-off game has been running. The longer the game has been in circulation, the fewer prizes will be left to win. This is especially true for multi-game tickets. In such cases, you will want to check the “winner’s list” and look for singletons.