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The Dangers of Playing the Lottery

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A lottery is a gamble that you are going to win something of value, whether it is money or a car. The word lottery comes from the Latin lotto, meaning “fate.” The casting of lots was an ancient practice, used to determine everything from who would become emperor to what a slain slave should be given as his or her inheritance. Today, Americans spend billions of dollars on state and private lotteries, making them one of the most popular pastimes in the country. But, like all gambling, lottery games are not without risks.

A large prize at the end of a lottery drawing is the main attraction for most players, and the big jackpots of recent years have driven ticket sales. But, as the New York Times explains in a long article on the subject, super-sized prizes are also bad for business; they encourage players to try to beat the system by buying tickets in bulk and figuring out which combinations of numbers will win them the most money. The result is that a large portion of the prize pool is used up on costs to organize and promote the lottery, while the remaining money is paid out to winners.

In the past, state governments regulated lotteries, and they did so in ways that varied widely from place to place. In some states, a percentage of the proceeds went to a public charity; in others, a share was devoted to education or other government programs. A few had no governmental involvement at all. The lottery was a popular activity, and its popularity increased as the Depression drove people to seek a way to escape their poverty.

Modern state-run lotteries were launched in the northeastern United States, Cohen writes, and were promoted as a way for states to finance their generous social safety nets without imposing especially burdensome taxes on working families. But by the nineteen-sixties, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War had eroded America’s prosperity and made it difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

That’s when the lottery began to take on a darker side. For some, playing the lottery becomes a substitute for other kinds of gambling, such as betting on professional sports teams or buying into stock speculation. But for the lucky few, it can be a path to great wealth and even, in some cases, redemption from criminal or financial misdeeds. And, as the Huffington Post’s Highline shows, the lottery’s marketers aren’t shy about availing themselves of the psychology of addiction and using strategies akin to those of tobacco or video-game companies.

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