A lottery is a gambling game in which people buy tickets with numbers on them; a random drawing selects winners, who then receive prizes of various amounts. People also use the word to refer to an activity that depends on chance, as in the stock market or a political election.
In this case, though, the word is being used to refer to a government-sponsored activity, a state-run gambling scheme that involves purchasing tickets with the hope of winning a big prize. The profits from these activities are supposedly redirected back into the state, where they are supposed to be used for public purposes such as education or roads. But what’s actually happening is quite different. In fact, it’s a form of taxation—and one with some very troubling undertones.
The word “lottery” is thought to have originated in the fourteenth century, as a contraction of Middle Dutch loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.” The first European state-run lotteries were conducted in the Low Countries, where they were used to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. In the seventeenth century, the trend made its way to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567, designating its proceeds for “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.”
By the nineteenth century, lotteries were widespread throughout the United States, where they helped finance the American Revolution as well as many of the early colonial settlements, despite Protestant-based prohibitions against gambling. They were even tangled up in the slave trade, with George Washington managing a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings and one formerly enslaved man winning a lottery ticket that enabled him to purchase his freedom.
After World War II, state governments saw the popularity of lotteries as an opportunity to expand their array of services without imposing especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. But that arrangement started to crumble in the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War made balancing state budgets increasingly difficult. The only solutions were raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were highly unpopular with voters.
In addition to reshaping tax policy, the growth of lotteries has shifted state revenue streams in other ways. Lottery ticket sales are growing rapidly in low-income communities, bringing in more money than the traditional sources of state revenue, such as oil and gas royalties. This has produced a new set of problems, including rising poverty rates and stagnant incomes for much of the population.
There’s a basic, inextricable human impulse to gamble, and that’s certainly what people are doing when they play the lottery. But there’s also a lot more going on here, and it all has to do with the ugly underbelly of inequality and limited social mobility. As long as the lottery continues to dangle this promise of instant riches, it’s hard to see how things can change. The problem is that if you do win, the chances of a decent life are pretty slim.