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The Dark Side of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which winners are chosen by random drawing. Governments promote and run lotteries to raise revenue and help the poor. In the United States, people spent more than $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021. A winning ticket in a state lottery can be worth millions of dollars. But that money comes with hefty taxes, reducing the winnings to a fraction of their value.

The word “lottery” derives from the Middle Dutch noun lot meaning fate or destiny, from Old English lte (toss) and Middle High German lottere (deal). It’s used to refer to a competition based on chance, in which numbered tickets are sold for a prize — usually money. Lotteries are common in Europe, with the oldest surviving lottery being the Netherlands’ Staatsloterij, founded in 1726.

The big jackpots of modern lottery games are not only popular with players, but also generate free publicity for the game in newscasts and on social media. But there is a darker side to the lottery. These games are a form of gambling, and there is little doubt that the overwhelming majority of people who play them lose money over time. Yet some people are completely committed to the lottery, spending $50 or $100 a week on tickets. When I talk with them, they are often clear-eyed about the odds and how much they are wasting of their own money. It’s a fascinating story.