Lottery, a popular game in which players guess numbers, was invented in seventeenth-century Genoa. It’s not self-evidently groundbreaking, or even very appealing: You need to guess a certain number of numbers in a range to win, and the odds are absurdly low. But somehow, lottery has become a big deal in America. Lottery is now the most profitable form of gambling in the world, and its popularity has soared during a time when people have lost faith in other forms of wealth creation.
The popularity of the lottery has coincided with a sharp decline in financial security for working people. Since the nineteen-seventies, income inequality has widened, job security has disappeared, and health-care costs have risen. The result is a sense of economic insecurity that has made people more eager to gamble, and to imagine winning the jackpots that would make their lives whole again.
Many people play the lottery because they think that it’s a way to avoid paying taxes or providing for their families, or that it will help them get out of debt, buy a new car, or pay off their mortgages. But most people also play because they like the idea of living a life of luxury. And they’re often reassured by the fact that the odds of winning are very, very low.
In the beginning, lotteries were popular in colonial America, where they helped finance both private and public projects, despite strong Protestant proscriptions against dice and cards. Among the projects they financed were roads, canals, bridges, and churches. In the 1740s, the colonies held a series of public lotteries to raise money for the American Revolution, and private lotteries helped build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Columbia Universities, as well as Princeton and Pennsylvania colleges.
State lotteries are now one of the most popular forms of gambling in the United States. Most lottery prizes are cash, and the winners are chosen by random drawing. The amount of the prize is generally based on how many tickets are sold, the cost of promoting the lottery, and any other revenues or taxes that are collected. The prizes range from a single large prize to many smaller ones.
But state lotteries also rely on the psychological tricks that are standard in advertising, and that are used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers. They tell their customers that a purchase is a civic duty, that it helps children or veterans, and that they’re doing the right thing.
To stoke demand, lotteries also advertise that the proceeds are going to a particular line item in the budget. When advocates no longer could sell the lottery as a silver bullet, they began to argue that it would help pay for a specific government service—most commonly education but sometimes elder care or public parks. This narrow approach made it easy for politicians to campaign on its behalf. It also gave voters a way to support the lottery without voting for gambling.