Three Things You Should Know About the Lottery

Three Things You Should Know About the Lottery

With Americans spending an estimated $100 billion each year on tickets, lottery games seem to be thriving. But their history, both as public and private gambling games, has been a long and rocky one. Here are three things you should know about them.

A lottery is a contest in which numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. The prize may be money or something else of value, such as a house or a car. A lottery is also a way of raising funds for a cause. The term “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or fortune. The earliest known lottery was held by the Roman Empire, and prizes were usually luxury items like dinnerware or silverware. By the 17th century, it was commonplace for colonial America to use lotteries to raise money for public projects, including roads and colleges.

Many modern lotteries involve electronic machines that randomly select numbers or symbols and display them on a screen. Players purchase a ticket, which is scanned or otherwise recorded for future reference, and the computer determines whether they have won a prize. A bettor can win several prizes in the same drawing, or none at all. If the entertainment value of a lottery ticket is high enough for an individual, the disutility of a monetary loss can be outweighed by the expected utility of non-monetary gains.

State-sponsored lotteries typically rely on a small base of frequent users to drive their profits, with some getting up to 80 percent of their revenue from that group. But those people aren’t representative of the overall population. As a result, many people are pushed out of the lottery system.

Lottery marketing has become increasingly sophisticated, and a savvy operator can make a great deal of money. Lottery commissions send two messages primarily: One is that the lottery is a game that’s fun to play. The other is the promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility.

For the average person, there are few things more enticing than the chance to win big in the lottery. But, as with any form of gambling, the potential rewards should always be weighed against the risks. In the case of state-sponsored lotteries, those risks are especially significant. It’s time to change that. The future of the lottery is at risk unless we make some major changes now. This article originally appeared on The Conversation, and is republished here with permission. Copyright 2015 The Conversation. All rights reserved. Read our Terms of Use.