Lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world. People spent upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021. It may not be as dangerous as heroin or even tobacco, but there’s a reason it’s so widely loved: It offers the promise of a great deal of money with very little risk. Buying a ticket can be addictive. It can also have long-term costs that derail a person’s financial stability and create feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. In the end, it’s all about that sliver of a chance that you’re going to win.
Historically, lotteries have served as a way for states to raise funds without inflaming anti-tax voters. They are also a popular way for state legislatures to circumvent the constitution’s ban on direct taxation. In the late twentieth century, as a budget crisis prompted many states to approve state-run lotteries, they did so not because they believed gambling was a good thing but because it provided political cover for raising taxes.
The lottery is a game in which participants pay a small amount of money to guess numbers, either by hand or by machine. The winners receive prizes based on how many of their numbers match those drawn by a random machine. The odds of winning are usually very low—you’re more likely to be struck by lightning or become a billionaire than to hit the jackpot. But for some people, the improbable chances are worth the price of a ticket.
Despite their low odds of winning, lotteries have been a part of American culture for centuries. They were a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who viewed them as not much more risky than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who understood that people “would prefer an opportunity to gain a great deal to a sure loss of a small sum.”
In early America, lotteries were often tangled up with slavery, sometimes in unpredictable ways. George Washington ran a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and enslaved persons such as Denmark Vesey used the proceeds from South Carolina’s state-run lottery to purchase their freedom or fund slave rebellions. By the 1800s, religious and moral sensibilities began to turn against gambling of all kinds.
Today, state lottery commissions rely on two messages to keep the games going. They tell people that playing the lottery is a fun experience, and they promote their games as an easy way to have a little bit of extra cash. That translates into people spending a significant portion of their disposable incomes on tickets, obscuring the regressivity of the games.
In addition, the lottery industry plays on people’s fears of losing their hard-earned money and of being cheated. This is not a new tactic: The marketing strategy has been borrowed from tobacco and video-game companies. Lottery ads and ticket designs, for example, are modeled after those of fast-food chains and sex games. Those are meant to lure in people by making them feel like they’re in on something special, and then —just as with cigarettes and Snickers bars — to make the experience as addictive as possible.