The Popularity of Lotteries

A lottery is a system in which prizes are awarded to winners by chance. Prizes can be anything from a unit in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. The most common financial lottery involves people buying numbered tickets, selecting groups of numbers or having machines randomly spit them out, and then winning prizes if enough of their numbers match those that are drawn. Other examples are stock market lotteries and sporting events where the outcome is determined by random selection.

The popularity of lotteries dates back to the seventeenth century, when they were used to finance a wide range of projects in Europe and America, including town fortifications and charity funds. In Britain, Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567. Tickets cost ten shillings, and they were a rare opportunity to escape the strict Protestant proscription against gambling.

In the United States, in early times they were often tangled up with the slave trade. George Washington managed a lottery to raise money for a battery of cannons to defend Philadelphia, and Thomas Jefferson held one that offered human beings as prizes. Later, enslaved people bought freedom with the proceeds of South Carolina state lotteries. One of those, Denmark Vesey, purchased his freedom with a winning ticket and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

In recent decades, as the political climate has shifted in many parts of the country, advocates for legalizing the lottery have begun to change tactics. Instead of arguing that a statewide lottery would float most of a state budget, they now claim that it could pay for one line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This strategy makes the lottery seem less like a blatant tax increase and more appealing to voters concerned about those issues.

Lotteries are popular because they are easy to organize and promote, cheap to play, and offer large prizes that appeal to the general population. They have also become a major source of income for some governments and are a significant contributor to state spending. But critics are increasingly focusing on specific features of the operation, including the problem of compulsive gamblers and its regressive impact on lower-income groups.

Nevertheless, the popularity of lotteries is likely to continue to rise, as the demand for a piece of the pie grows and as more people feel the pinch of rising health care costs and a shrinking middle class. Even the most conservative studies suggest that a substantial percentage of people will be willing to participate in a lottery if it offers a reasonable chance of winning. This is a sign of the continuing power of human greed and hope in the face of hardship. 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.