Lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for prizes. It’s a gamble, a risky enterprise that can bring big rewards — or crushing defeat. The history of lottery-based betting goes back centuries, and it was a crucial tool in the colonization of America, where the development of both private and public ventures, such as roads, libraries, churches, canals, bridges, colleges, and even some governmental military efforts were partly funded through it. Lottery was brought to the colonies by British immigrants, despite the fact that the practice violated many Protestant proscriptions against gambling.
The earliest recorded lotteries were in the Low Countries, where they were used to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. They were wildly popular and hailed as a painless form of taxation.
In the decades following World War II, as income inequality widened and health-care costs rose, our longstanding national promise that hard work and education would make people wealthier than their parents lost credibility. It was at this time that the state-sponsored lottery was born, and the advocates of legalization argued that it could finance a whole host of services without onerous taxes on working families.
This was a tempting narrative because it was simple to sell and lent itself well to the image of a “fairer” distribution of state government funds. But the truth is that lotteries are a lot more uneven than that, largely because they rely on a player base that is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. Those players also tend to spend a lot more on tickets than those who don’t play, and the results are often dispiriting.