Buying a lottery ticket is one of the cheapest ways to gamble. At just $1 or $2, a ticket gives you the chance to win hundreds of millions in prize money. It’s a tempting investment, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, when the dream of unimaginable wealth has taken on new resonance. But a closer look at lottery play reveals that there’s more to this gambling than just an inextricable human urge to take a risk. Lottery prizes dangle a promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility, and the lottery industry knows it. It’s why state lottery commissions spend billions on advertising, and why you can buy Powerball tickets next to the Snickers bar at a gas station.
The first modern lotteries arose in the fourteen-hundreds, when towns and cities in the Low Countries used them to raise funds to build town fortifications and help the poor. The practice spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567 and assigned its profits to “reparation of the Havens.” By the seventeenth century, public lotteries had become ubiquitous in the colonies, where they were often tangled up with the slave trade in unpredictable ways. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and one enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, purchased his freedom from a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.
In colonial America, lotteries were also widely used as a means to raise funds for public projects such as canals, bridges, roads, libraries, and churches. They also helped to finance wars, and, in 1776, the Continental Congress established a lottery to raise funds for the American Revolution. Privately run lotteries were even more common, and in early America they played an important role in the financing of schools, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary.
The ubiquity of the lottery is partly due to its low cost. Lottery machines can print a large number of tickets quickly, and a lottery office can distribute them at a fraction of the price of a traditional printing shop. This low cost also makes it easier for politicians to justify the taxation of lottery proceeds.
While most people who buy tickets play for the hope of winning big, many of them are just seeking entertainment value. They’re no different than the people who buy a Snickers bar or a video game, but their purchases are subsidized by governments. And those subsidies add up, because lottery players as a group contribute billions to government receipts that could be better spent on education, health care, or retirement.
The truth is that the odds of winning a major jackpot are minuscule. In fact, the odds of hitting a large jackpot have been shrinking since the lottery was introduced. This is because the size of the top prize has grown to apparently newsworthy levels, making it less likely that there will be a winner in any given drawing.