The Truth About Lottery Games


Lottery is an integral part of American life, with people spending upwards of $80 billion annually on tickets. And despite the high odds of winning, many feel like their ticket is a worthy investment. This irrational belief stems in large part from the fact that lottery games are often advertised as being a fun and harmless experience. But that message obscures the reality of how regressive lottery gambling is, and it should be called out.

Lotteries are a form of gambling in which prizes (often cash or goods) are awarded according to a random process, usually drawing numbers from a pool of possibilities. They are most often played in a state-wide or regional context. Modern lotteries also include commercial promotions in which the purchase of a product or service provides a chance to win a prize.

The first recorded lotteries were keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty between 205 and 187 B.C., and they were used to fund public projects such as canals and roads. In colonial America, lotteries played a significant role in funding private and public ventures, including the foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities, as well as churches and libraries.

Today, lotteries promote their products by touting the specific benefits of state revenue — as if winning a prize is a civic duty. But this message overlooks how much lottery playing hurts the poorest among us. Lottery players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite, and they spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on tickets. They’re not a group to be taken lightly.

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