The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery

Lottery is a regular feature in our lives, but it has a dark underbelly. It’s a form of gambling, sure, but also an attempt to fling away the ugly underbelly of inequality and limited social mobility by giving people the illusion that their lucky number might just change everything.

The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun lot meaning “fate”, or a “fateful drawing.” It was probably in the late 15th century that public lotteries first appeared in Europe, with towns using them to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. They proved to be a painless way of raising funds, which is why they’ve become so ubiquitous.

Today’s lotteries aren’t as advertised as they once were; they rely on two main messages. One is that playing the lottery is a good thing, even when you lose; that it’s your civic duty to buy a ticket because you’ll be helping the state and saving the kids. And the other is that winning is not as improbable as it seems.

The latter argument is a bit misleading; while it’s true that the majority of lottery winners are low-income, less educated, and nonwhite, winning the lottery doesn’t necessarily make you rich. And, as a recent study shows, it’s unlikely that the money you win will boost economic growth or reduce income inequality. And if you do win, there’s always the risk that poor investment decisions (your own or those of an unethical financial advisor) will wipe out your entire jackpot.

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