Is the Lottery Worth the Risk?

Lottery is the most common form of gambling in America, and it’s also the most popular way state governments raise money. But, as with all forms of gambling, lottery games have their risks, and whether those risk are worth the revenue they generate for states is debatable. This isn’t to suggest that people shouldn’t play the lottery, but it is important to understand the costs involved before buying a ticket.

It’s no surprise that the majority of lottery players are poor or middle class, but the numbers show something more troubling: Lottery playing is addictive. It’s hard to stop once you start, and the average American spends over $80 billion per year on tickets. The problem is that most of this money isn’t going towards an emergency fund or paying off credit card debt. Instead, it’s being used to chase the impossible dream of becoming rich.

The notion of a random lottery is ancient, and the practice has been around since biblical times (the Lord instructed Moses to divide the land of Israel by lot) and even Roman times (Nero loved his tickets). But it became especially popular in colonial America, where lottery games played an important role in financing both private and public ventures. In fact, the entire expansion of the British colonies into North America was financed in part through lotteries.

These early lotteries were often used as party games, with hosts giving out wood pieces with symbols on them to guests at dinner parties who could win prizes ranging from slaves to property. They were also a regular feature of Saturnalia festivities, and the casting of lots was sometimes used for everything from divining God’s will to determining who would keep Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion.

In the modern era, however, lotteries grew into a big business, with prizes reaching into the millions of dollars. The games quickly became a staple of state government finance, and the notion that anyone could become rich overnight became a national obsession. This obsession coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans, as income gaps widened, social safety nets were eroded, and job security and pensions disappeared.

As the economy weakened, support for state-run lotteries declined. But a new generation of advocates emerged in the nineteen-seventies, who rejected old ethical objections to state-run gambling and argued that, if people were going to gamble anyway, it made sense for the state to profit from their action. As a result, the late-twentieth century saw a massive increase in state lotteries, with many of them beginning in Northeastern states and the Rust Belt. By the time these states reached the end of their life cycles, Cohen writes, they had “created a system that rewarded unimaginable wealth and encouraged an obscene affluence at the expense of ordinary people,” while the long-standing national promise that education and hard work would pay off for most children was rapidly evaporating.

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