The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. It can take many forms, from scratch-off tickets that sell for a few dollars to the Powerball jackpot that reaches into the billions. It’s the ultimate game of chance, where the outcome is completely unpredictable. Yet people keep playing, spending their hard-earned money on tickets that might not even win them a prize. It’s an ugly underbelly of human nature that we can’t seem to resist.
In the beginning, lotteries were used primarily as parties games—Romans adored them, and Nero himself drew lots for everything from the winner of a slave ship to Jesus’s garments after the Crucifixion—or for divining God’s will. Later, they became a popular way to raise money for a variety of public projects. In the early eighteenth century, lottery profits paid for bridges, roads, and even Harvard. They also helped pay for the Continental Congress’s revolutionary war effort, but despite their popularity, critics called them morally suspect.
Early American lottery enthusiasts rejected these arguments. They argued that since gamblers would play anyway, governments might as well pocket the proceeds. This argument had its limits—by its logic, states should sell heroin—but it provided moral cover for people who approved of state-run gambling. It also gave them a way to fund public services that they thought white voters might prefer to avoid paying for, like better schools in rural areas.
During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, America’s obsession with unimaginable wealth—and the dream of hitting a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot—corresponded with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. The income gap widened, retirement and health-care costs soared, job security disappeared, and the old national promise that education and hard work would make you richer than your parents was fading fast.
In this climate, lottery commissions began to take advantage of the psychology of addiction. They manipulated the odds to keep the public coming back for more, and to entice new customers by making the jackpots larger. They pumped out ads touting huge sums of money that could be won for a little as fifty bucks or so. They launched new games with one-in-three million odds, and lowered the prize amounts for the existing ones. It was a shrewd strategy, not dissimilar to those of tobacco companies and video-game makers. And it worked.