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The Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is one of America’s favorite pastimes. People spend billions of dollars, and sometimes even more than that, to win a tiny chance to be the next big winner. But, where does all that money go? And, more importantly, does anyone make a profit off of it?

The casting of lots to determine fates and property has a long history (including many instances in the Bible). But lotteries as public fundraisers are relatively recent, appearing first in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders with towns trying to raise funds for town defenses and help the poor. The first European lottery to offer tickets for prize money was probably the ventura, held in 1476 by the city-state of Modena under the patronage of the d’Este family.

State governments adopt lotteries primarily for the purpose of raising “painless” revenue without increasing taxes or cutting other programs. As a result, lottery popularity tends to be tied to political stress and concerns about economic conditions, but not to actual state government fiscal health.

However, the principal message pushed in lottery advertising is that playing the lottery is fun, and a lot of people have been having a great time doing it for years, spending $50 or $100 a week. This messaging obscures the regressivity of the lottery and masks its impact on the bottom half of Americans. It also obscures the fact that the lottery is not a game for all Americans, but rather is mostly a game for lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male Americans.