The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay to enter a draw for a prize. It is often portrayed as a game of chance, but it is not necessarily. It can also be an exercise in hope. Some people play for fun while others believe it is their only chance at a better life. Either way, it contributes billions to state coffers annually. But this arrangement has an ugly underbelly.

During the post-World War II period, states started to organize lotteries because they wanted to raise money for new social safety net programs and other public works without increasing taxes. The growth of the lottery was rapid, especially in Northeastern states with large Catholic populations that were generally tolerant of gambling activities.

The first lotteries mainly offered money as prizes, but many now have a range of other rewards, from merchandise like computers and TVs to services such as health insurance and education. The largest prizes, however, drive most ticket sales. Super-sized jackpots draw media attention, boost ticket sales, and encourage repeat play.

The first lottery was in 1539 in the Low Countries, where records from towns such as Ghent and Utrecht show that they raised money to build town fortifications and help poor citizens. The idea spread to England and later to the United States, where Congress passed legislation in 1844 that permitted state governments to organize lotteries to raise money for public projects. In the US, state-run lotteries are legal and operate in all fifty states.