Lotteries have long had a special place in our national psyche. They have been used to finance everything from the building of the British Museum to Boston’s Faneuil Hall. They were the preferred way of raising money for schools, roads and bridges in early America despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In fact, many American universities were founded using lotteries. And they continue to attract huge crowds of people who spend $80 Billion a year on tickets, which is almost a third of the average household income.
The word lottery comes from the Latin verb tolotere, “to distribute” or “to divide by lots.” Lotteries involve selling a series of prizes to a group of people who have paid a fee to participate in a drawing. Usually, the prize fund is comprised of one large jackpot and many smaller prizes. The amount of the largest prize is predetermined, and the number of winners is based on the number of tickets sold. Prizes can also be a mix of cash and goods, or a combination of both.
Until recently, the majority of public funding for lotteries came from the states, but there was also private commercial competition for prize funds from local businesses and even charitable organizations. Unlike commercial contests, which are aimed at a limited audience, lotteries have broad appeal. They are inexpensive to organize, easy to play, and a popular form of recreation. In addition, they can be a good source of revenue for state governments and their constituents.
In recent years, however, lotteries have grown more lucrative than ever. They have been boosted by super-sized jackpots, which generate enormous free publicity on news sites and television. The more lucrative a prize is, the more people are willing to pay to try their luck. This incentivizes prize growers to jack up the odds of winning. After all, the more improbable the odds, the higher the stakes and the more attractive the prize.
The soaring jackpots have also shifted the nature of the debate over the lottery. Instead of debating whether government should allow it at all, legalization advocates have begun to focus on arguing that a statewide lottery would cover a single line item in the state budget–usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. By focusing on specific line items, they have removed the ethical objections that could arise from a general argument against gambling. In the end, though, the main reason why people play the lottery is that they just plain like to gamble. The glitz and glamour of lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches in a world where social mobility remains stagnant. But it’s a dangerous illusion. The truth is that the odds are stacked against you every time you buy a ticket. Even if you win the jackpot, you will still end up with less than everyone else. That is a fact that is not likely to change anytime soon.