What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a game of chance in which numbers or symbols are drawn to determine a prize, such as money. The word is probably derived from the Dutch loterie, or “fate-charting,” and was introduced into English in the first half of the seventeenth century (the earlier word may have been lotinge, a calque on Middle Dutch loterij). A modern lottery usually involves some form of electronic scanning to record the identities and amounts staked by each bettor and then a drawing to determine winners.

Lotteries are popular around the world and raise billions of dollars each year for public use. They are not the only way to win money, but they have proven to be a highly effective strategy for many people, especially those with limited incomes. The strategies that lottery marketers employ, like those of tobacco or video-game manufacturers, are designed to keep gamblers hooked.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, America’s obsession with unimaginable wealth—as epitomized by lottery jackpots—coincided with a sharp decline in financial security for most working Americans. In that period, income inequality widened, jobs were harder to come by, and the long-standing national promise that hard work and education would make one richer than his parents largely proved hollow.

As a result, more and more states turned to the lottery as a “budgetary miracle,” a way for governments to fund services without raising taxes, which they feared would provoke an angry response from anti-tax voters. This was a particularly opportune moment, as state budgets were rapidly shrinking and legislators were desperate to find solutions that did not enrage their constituents.

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