The Dangers of Winning the Lottery


The lottery is a gambling game in which a ticketholder has an equal chance of winning a prize that can range from nothing to a house. It is a popular fundraising mechanism that governments use for both public and private projects. In colonial America, for example, lotteries were used to finance roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, bridges, and other private ventures. They were also used to fund military operations in the French and Indian War, including the building of fortifications, and to provide funds for local militias.

In the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the lottery industry collided with a crisis in state funding. As population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War escalated, many states struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both options wildly unpopular with voters.

Lotteries were one solution, but they required the support of a substantial portion of the state’s electorate to pass. To appease skeptical voters, advocates of legalization shifted their pitch. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they began claiming it would pay for a single line item—typically education but sometimes other government services such as elder care or public parks or aid to veterans.

The argument was that if people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits and pocket them. It was an appealing argument, even if it ignored the fact that winning the lottery can lead to addiction and other negative consequences.