The casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long history (it’s even mentioned in the Bible), but lotteries as means of material gain are more recent. They were introduced in the American colonies by British immigrants, and by the early 1800s they had become immensely popular. Lotteries were used for everything from raising money to build the British Museum and to pay for bridge repairs, to supplying a battery of guns to defend Philadelphia, and even to rebuild Faneuil Hall in Boston.

In modern times, state-sponsored lotteries have broad public support, and they are often touted as being a great source of revenue for states. Lotteries are able to sustain their popularity by framing their proceeds as benefiting some specific public good, such as education; this argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress when state governments face the prospect of tax increases or cuts in other services.

However, this framing is misleading; lottery revenues are a drop in the bucket of overall state revenue. The real reason state governments adopt lotteries is that they’re desperate for new sources of revenue, especially in an anti-tax era.

Although there is an inextricable human pleasure in playing lottery games, there’s also an ugly underbelly to this phenomenon. The reality is that most people who play the lottery are poor, undereducated, and nonwhite. They’re disproportionately dragged into this gambling activity by the hope that they can break out of their current poverty, but the chances are slim to none.

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