The Dark Side of the Lottery

A lottery (lot’r) is a gambling arrangement in which prizes, usually money or goods, are allocated by lot. Modern lotteries are generally organized so that a percentage of the profits is donated to good causes. Lottery games are popular with the general public because they offer the prospect of large winnings, and can be played for fun or as a means to raise funds for specific projects. The earliest lotteries in the modern sense of the word appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders as a means for towns to raise money to fortify their defenses or aid the poor. Francis I of France promoted private and public lotteries in several cities in the 1600s. Private lotteries were also widely used in colonial America as a mechanism for raising “voluntary taxes” and helped finance many public projects, including roads, libraries, schools, colleges, canals, churches, and military expeditions. Benjamin Franklin held a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.

In the immediate post-World War II period, states embraced lotteries as an easy way to increase their social safety net without raising especially onerous taxes on working people. Lotteries have grown in popularity ever since and now account for a significant portion of state government revenue.

But there is a darker side to the lottery. In addition to promoting a largely unregulated form of gambling, its advertising campaigns convey two key messages. First, they suggest that a lottery ticket is a great way to improve your life; the chances of winning are far higher than buying a house or a car. Second, they encourage the idea that lottery tickets are a good source of income, even though most winnings are far smaller than advertised.

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