A lottery is a game in which players purchase a ticket with a set of numbers, and win a prize if those numbers are drawn at random. While there are many types of lotteries, the most common involves a financial prize, such as a cash award or units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a particular school. Other kinds of lotteries are used to award prizes based on an ability to perform a task, such as a military promotion or a science scholarship.
Lottery is a fixture of American life, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year. But there’s more to the lottery than just the inextricable human impulse to gamble; it’s a way for states to raise money. That’s the message that’s pushed: Buying a ticket isn’t just a little bit of gambling, it’s a way to “save the children.”
While people have been playing games of chance for millennia, it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that state-run lotteries emerged. They were a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who thought them to be no riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would turn out to be their essence: that everyone “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a greater chance of winning nothing.”
Early lottery games were also tangled up with slavery, sometimes in unexpected ways. George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery with prizes that included human beings, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won the South Carolina lottery and then went on to foment a slave rebellion.
In the nineteen-sixties, America’s prosperity began to wane as the costs of population growth and inflation mounted, and state budgets came under strain. Many states, especially those with generous social safety nets, were forced to balance their books by raising taxes or cutting services, which proved unpopular with voters.
In the thirties, a group of white voters led the effort to legalize state-run gambling. They dismissed long-standing ethical objections, arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits. This rationalization worked; it helped to make the lottery the most popular form of gambling in the world.