What You Should Know Before Playing the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling where you pick the right numbers or symbols to win a prize. It is a popular activity that contributes billions to the economy every year. But there are some things you should know before playing.

Lotteries have a long history, extending back at least to Roman times (Nero was a big fan) and are attested to in the Bible for everything from deciding who would keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. More recently, they helped spread English culture into America and then aided colonial development, often despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

By the nineteen-sixties, however, a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the lottery business coincided with a crisis in state funding. As health-care costs and inflation skyrocketed, pensions and job security eroded, and government services fell into neglect, it became increasingly difficult for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

When that happened, advocates of legalizing the lottery switched strategy. Instead of arguing that the lottery could float an entire state’s budget, they began claiming it could fund just one line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks. This narrow approach enabled them to claim that a vote for the lottery was a vote in favor of education or veterans, rather than against it. It was an effective campaign. But it also revealed how little lotteries really do for their sponsors, which are normally the states or other organizations that run them.