The Truth About the Official Lottery

The prevailing message of lotteries seems to be: You’re doing your civic duty by playing, even though you have a very small chance of winning. But when you look at the percentage of money that lottery winners actually take home, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely that most of the money they win is spent on tickets.

Another major message is that the proceeds from a lottery help the state. But again, this claim isn’t backed up by looking at the amount of revenue that the lottery raises compared to overall state revenues. It’s also not backed up by looking at the way that lotteries spend their money.

During the early days of America, lotteries were a big deal. They helped finance everything from roads to colleges and churches. They were even used to fund a militia to defend Boston and the colonial ports from marauding French troops. And, like nearly everything else in early American history, they were tangled up with slavery. John Hancock ran a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall and George Washington managed one that included human beings as prizes (though he failed to raise enough money to finance his road over a mountain pass).

As time went by, though, lotteries became less common. In modern times, they’re still popular, especially when the economy or unemployment is bad and people are desperate to get ahead. But they’re also increasingly seen as a tool of the state to distribute wealth, which many people see as morally illegitimate.