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The Dark Underbelly of Lottery Games

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A competition in which numbered tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize, often for state or charitable purposes. In most lotteries, ticketholders have an equal chance of winning, and the prize money is derived from the total amount wagered by all players, including the cost of organizing and promoting the lottery. Also called a state lottery or national lottery.

Lottery games have long been popular in the United States, with proceeds contributing to billions of dollars annually for public use. But there’s a dark underbelly to this booming industry, and it’s one that has serious implications for poor people and problem gamblers. It also raises questions about whether government should be in the business of encouraging gambling, particularly when such activities can have such serious consequences for those who participate.

The earliest recorded examples of lotteries in the modern sense of the word appear in town records from the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns raised money to build fortifications or to help the needy. But the concept is probably much older. The Latin for drawing lots is loterie, and the name may be a calque on Middle Dutch lotinge “action of drawing lots,” which itself may have derived from the Old Norse word löytyr, meaning “a lot.”

In the years that followed, New Hampshire introduced a state lottery in 1964, and it was quickly followed by other states, culminating in a nationwide network of 37 lotteries today. Initially, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for future drawings that could take place weeks or months away. But the 1970s saw a number of innovations, including scratch-off tickets and the Quick Pick numbers option, that changed the way lottery games were played.

A key element of a lottery’s popularity is the degree to which the proceeds are seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. This argument has proved successful for many lotteries, especially when it can be used to deflect criticism of a state’s objective fiscal situation. But critics have pointed out that the earmarking of lottery funds actually reduces by an equivalent amount the appropriations that would otherwise be allotted for the particular program from the general fund; it does not increase the overall funding for the program.

Even when the earmarking argument is successful, however, lotteries still have a hard time convincing the public that their revenues are being put to good use. That’s because lotteries are designed primarily to maximize revenues, and a significant portion of those revenues must be spent on prizes, advertising, and administrative costs. That leaves relatively small percentages available to winners, and it’s those tiny amounts that tend to skew the demographics of lottery play. Men play more than women; blacks and Hispanics play less than whites; and the young play less than those in middle age. These demographics reflect a deeper truth: The lottery is a game of chance that is fundamentally regressive in its impact on society.

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