How the Lottery Is Put at Cross-Purposes With the General Welfare


The lottery is a type of gambling in which you pay a small sum of money for the chance to win a large sum of money. In the United States, most states run lotteries to raise funds for various public projects. But the lottery is also a big business, and the way state lotteries are run often puts them at cross-purposes with the general welfare.

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in human history (including several instances recorded in the Bible). But the modern lottery first came into existence in Europe in the early 15th century. It was a popular way to finance towns, wars, and other public-works projects. In colonial America, George Washington ran a lottery to help fund construction of the Mountain Road in Virginia, and Benjamin Franklin supported a lottery to buy cannons for the Revolutionary War.

Today, many state lotteries offer a variety of games, including instant-win scratch-off tickets and daily lottery games where you pick numbers. While these games are technically legal, critics point out that they are largely addictive and have a disproportionate impact on poor people. The problem is that state officials rely on two messages to push their products:

First, they emphasize the good news that the money raised by lottery games benefits states. But this is a false narrative, and it obscures the true harm caused by state-sponsored gambling. In fact, the majority of lottery players and state revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods, with far fewer players proportionally coming from low-income areas.

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