The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery

A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes (money or goods) are awarded through a random process, usually after payment of a consideration. The earliest known lotteries were used to allocate property in the ancient world, and they continue to be used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which goods or services are given away in exchange for a purchase, and other purposes. Some lotteries are regulated by law, while others are not.

People buy lottery tickets because they hope to win the big prize and escape from their hard-working lives. Large jackpots drive ticket sales and earn the games a windfall of free publicity on news sites and newscasts. But there is a dark underbelly to the lottery that is often overlooked.

In the early days of the American colonies, lotteries were popular ways for local governments and licensed promoters to raise money for a variety of public uses. They were hailed as a painless alternative to taxation, but critics argue that they encourage gambling and distort state budgets.

The term “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate. The first recorded lotteries to sell tickets with a prize of cash were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century, according to town records from Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges. The word has also been attributed to an Old Dutch calque of the French noun loterie, itself a calque of the Latin noun loti, meaning fate. Lotteries were used in the colonial United States to fund projects such as schools, roads, and bridges.