A lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay a small amount of money for the opportunity to win a large sum of money. Official state lotteries are operated by governments and are subject to government regulations. These rules are often strict and include a minimum prize payout and age restrictions. In the United States, 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia operate a lottery. The six that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada (the land of slot machines in Las Vegas)—are mainly motivated by religious concerns or fiscal priorities. In addition, Alabama and Utah don’t offer a state-run lottery because the state governments already collect gambling revenue and don’t want to have to compete with another entity that would take away their share of the profits.
In colonial America, the popularity of lotteries grew along with the country’s growing prosperity and need for public works projects. Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, the practice proved popular in towns and colonies that could not raise taxes and needed a way to finance their civil defense, roads, churches, libraries, schools, canals, and bridges. The Continental Congress even used lotteries to fund the Revolutionary War.
But the lottery, in its modern form, is a regressive tax that takes more from low-income communities, and which studies show is marketed heavily to marginalized Americans who believe it’s a quick path to wealth. The result is that the people who can least afford it end up paying for this system with their lives, their health, and their children’s futures.