The Truth About the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance where players select numbers in order to win a prize. Most state governments organize a lottery to raise money for various public purposes, such as roads and jails, and to fund a variety of social services. Lottery advocates hail it as a painless revenue source, and politicians often support the games because they offer a way to raise funds without raising taxes.

But the reality is that most lottery players don’t win, and the winners are disproportionately from low-income households and minorities. Lotteries are, in other words, a kind of speculative wealth tax that primarily hurts those who can least afford it.

The idea of drawing lots to distribute property or money dates back to ancient times. The Old Testament instructed Moses to divide land among the people by lot, and Roman emperors used it for giving away slaves and property during Saturnalian feasts. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when America’s banking and taxation systems were still evolving, public lotteries flourished. They raised money for all manner of public usages and helped finance hundreds of colleges and schools, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union and Brown. Even famous American leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held private lotteries to ease their crushing debts or buy cannons for Philadelphia.

Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia operate lotteries. In the United States, the lottery generates more than $42 billion a year. Its supporters point out that it is a “painless” form of taxation, in which the players voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of the government, while opponents call it dishonest, unseemly, and regressive.

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