The Truth About the Lottery

The practice of making decisions and determining fates by drawing lots dates back to ancient times (it’s mentioned several times in the Bible). The first lottery was held in Bruges in 1569. The word itself comes from the Middle Dutch loterie, which probably derives from the verb “to draw,” a calque of the French loterie (“action of drawing lots”). State-sponsored lotteries are surprisingly new: They first started in the immediate post-World War II period as a way for states to expand their social safety nets without onerous increases in tax rates on the working class.

The truth is that people play the lottery for all sorts of reasons. They like to gamble, and there is the inextricable human impulse to try to beat the odds. They also buy into the idea that any given set of numbers is luckier than others. But in fact, a random selection of numbers is just as likely to win as any other, and your odds don’t get any better over time.

Most of the money that is spent on lottery tickets is coming from people in lower-income neighborhoods. Studies suggest that those who play are disproportionately less educated and nonwhite, and that they spend a substantial share of their incomes on tickets. In an age of inequality and limited opportunity, it is easy to see why so many people play the lottery, even though they know the odds are long. Lottery commissioners have worked hard to promote the message that playing is fun, but that doesn’t hide the regressive nature of this form of gambling.