The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a game of numbers that pays out cash prizes to people who buy tickets. It’s an ancient activity, with references in the Old Testament and Roman emperors, and it exploded in popularity in the United States after New Hampshire established one in 1964. These days, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. There are six that don’t, including Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada—home to Las Vegas.

Lottery prizes can range from a few thousand dollars to an entire college tuition. Ticket sales are usually split between prizes, costs of running the lottery (typically marketing and administrative expenses), and profits for state governments or other sponsors. The remainder goes to winners. Normally, the higher the prize, the more tickets are sold. Buying more tickets doesn’t increase your chances of winning, however. Each ticket has its own independent probability.

Some people like to play because they just plain old enjoy gambling, and that’s fine. But the ugly underbelly of the lottery is that a large number of players are playing to get rich, which is a pretty dangerous proposition in an age of inequality and limited social mobility.

It’s also worth noting that the money for these games comes from somewhere, and studies have shown that it’s disproportionately taken by low-income people and minorities. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you know how much to spend, whether you’re a casual player or a committed gambler.

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