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What is a Lottery?

A lottery is an arrangement in which tickets are sold for a prize and winners selected by chance. Financial lotteries are generally run by governments to raise funds, such as for public projects or national defense. The first European public lotteries to award cash prizes were probably in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, with towns trying to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. Francis I of France popularized the practice and it spread to England.

State lotteries rely on the message that even if you don’t win, your purchase supports some kind of important government service, like children’s schools or elderly care. This is a strategy that’s similar to the one tobacco companies and video-game makers use. It’s also not uncommon for states to pay high fees to private advertising firms to boost ticket sales.

The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t work very well. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, America’s lust for unimaginable wealth, exemplified by lottery jackpots, coincided with a decline in financial security for most working people. Incomes stagnated, pensions eroded and health-care costs soared. The long-standing national promise that hard work and education would yield a middle-class life became a myth.

People know that winning the lottery is improbable, but they buy tickets anyway, hoping for that slim sliver of hope. It’s a perverse exercise, and it speaks to the ugly underbelly of our irrational addiction to instant riches.