The Official Lottery

A lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn and winners are awarded prizes based on chance. In the United States, state lotteries are operated independently from one another, but they often join to form consortiums that organize games spanning larger geographic footprints, allowing them to offer higher jackpots. Two of these consortiums, Mega Millions and Powerball, are so popular that they serve as de facto national lotteries.

In the early 1800s, Denmark Vesey, an enslaved personin Charleston, South Carolina, won a lottery and used the winnings to buy his freedom. This and other moral and religious sensibilities shifted public opinion against gambling, and by the time of the Civil War, it had become popular in some states for lawmakers to argue that a state lottery would float most of a state budget, enabling it to cut taxes on other services such as education, or elder care or public parks.

Defenders of the official lottery argue that people who play it are either too stupid to understand how unlikely their chances of winning are or they enjoy it anyway, and that this amounts to a tax on “the stupid.” But the reality is that lottery sales respond to economic fluctuations—they increase as unemployment grows, poverty rates rise, and more Americans are struggling to keep up with the cost of housing and food. And, as with all commercial products, lottery advertising is disproportionately focused in communities that are overwhelmingly low-income and Black or Latino.