The Myth of the Lottery

In the United States, about 50 percent of people buy a lottery ticket at least once a year. The money is used for a variety of purposes: to pay for college, buy a new car, or even build a home. These are not middle class people—they are lower-income and often from minority groups. They buy tickets based on the belief that they are their last, best, or only chance at something better.

Lotteries were popular in the immediate post-World War II period when state governments grew their array of services without raising especially onerous taxes on the working and middle classes. But, by the early to mid-1960s, that arrangement began to crumble. The costs of those programs grew, and states started looking for more revenue sources to offset those increased expenses. Lotteries were the answer.

Historically, many states and the federal government have organized and run lotteries in order to raise funds for various projects. These have ranged from building roads and bridges to providing for the poor. They have also been used to raise funds for military campaigns and a wide range of public works. In some cases, such as when the American Revolutionary War began, state lotteries raised enough money to support the colonial army.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were held in Europe in the 17th century. The word lotteries is derived from the Dutch noun “lot” (fate) and the verb “to draw lots.” The oldest running lottery in the world is the Staatsloterij of the Netherlands, which was founded in 1726.

While some people play the lottery because they want to win a big prize, there are many more who feel that they have little choice but to participate. It’s an inextricable human impulse, and one that lotteries encourage by putting out billboards with the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpots.

Despite the fact that the odds of winning are very low, there is always a sliver of hope for those who enter the lottery. That sliver of hope, the notion that it could be their time to get rich and change their lives for the better, is what keeps people coming back to lotteries.

It’s important to understand the underlying messages that lotteries send. Essentially, they are trying to convince the public that playing the lottery is okay and normal, when it’s really just a form of gambling. They are also trying to obscure the regressivity of lottery funds and how much people spend on tickets, while encouraging people to think about it as a way to have fun.

This video explains the basics of the lottery in a simple, concise way. It can be used by kids & teens to learn about the lottery, or as part of a money & personal finance lesson for school students. The video is available in both English and Spanish, and includes an audio transcript.