The Underbelly of the Lottery

When you see those billboards for the Powerball or Mega Millions lottery, there’s something about them that makes you believe that someone is going to win — even though the odds are long. It’s an inextricable human urge to take a chance. There’s also a more subtle underbelly to the lottery, as it flings out the idea that, no matter how bad your life is, you could just hit the jackpot and change everything.

Lotteries are games of chance that are operated by government agencies to raise funds for a variety of public projects. The practice dates back centuries, with records of lotteries in the Low Countries as early as the 15th century. These were used to raise money for town fortifications and the poor. They became increasingly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the United States’ banking and taxation systems were still developing and needed quick, easy ways to raise money. Lotteries were viewed as voluntary taxes, and American leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw great value in them.

The earliest lotteries typically offered cash prizes to people who purchased tickets, but in modern times the prizes may be anything from free travel to sports tickets to home renovations. Prize money is generally determined before the lottery’s ticket sales begin. The amount of the prize pool is usually set to be the amount left over from other revenues (such as profits for the promoter and cost of promotions) after subtracting expenses.