Lottery, the practice of drawing lots for a prize, is a very old tradition. One of the first recorded examples is a keno slip from the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205 and 187 BC, but a practice involving drawing wood symbols is probably even older. Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property as Saturnalian entertainment, and the biblical book of Numbers instructs Moses to take a census of Israel and distribute land by lot.
In modern times, most people associate lottery with the incredibly unlikely event of winning a large sum of money. But a lottery is really just a type of gambling. Like most gambling, it involves paying a small amount of money for a chance to win a larger amount. In the case of the lottery, the smaller amount is a ticket purchased to enter a drawing for a prize. Prizes can range from cash to goods, services, or even real estate. In the context of state-run lotteries, prizes also include a percentage of the proceeds from ticket sales.
When states began legalizing lotteries in the immediate post-World War II period, many of them thought of them as a way to expand social safety nets without the sting of higher taxes on working class and middle-class voters. The notion that the state could snag an enormous jackpot and pay for everything seemed almost too good to be true.
But lottery advocates didn’t just see lotteries as a drop in the bucket, they saw them as a way to make history: A solution that would allow states to get rid of taxation altogether.
To make this happen, they needed to sell the idea that everyone should play. To this end, they needed to create a player base — and it wasn’t difficult. They needed to draw players from the low-income, lower-educated, nonwhite population. These groups were the most likely to play, and they did so with a fervor.
Defenders of lotteries sometimes cast them as a “tax on stupidity,” but the truth is that lottery sales fluctuate with economic trends and depend on advertising, just as other commercial products do. It’s also important to remember that, just as with many commercial products, lottery promotions are heavily concentrated in neighborhoods populated by the populations most at risk of gambling addictions.
The result is a national playing base that’s disproportionately poor, less educated, black and Hispanic. But that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy the experience of buying a ticket, or that they don’t believe it might be their turn to hit the big one. That, along with a persistent sense that winning the lottery would solve all their problems, may be why so many Americans continue to play. But it’s a dangerous illusion that needs to be challenged. If we can stop believing in it, maybe we can begin to understand how lottery addiction really works. And perhaps then, we can find a better way to help people overcome it.