Lotteries are alluring because they promise a huge sum of money with little risk. That’s the message lottery commissions are coding into the way they market their games, as well as the experience of buying and scratching a ticket. They’re obscuring how regressive the system is and putting it in the context of a game that is supposed to be fun, but is really just a form of gambling addiction.
The practice of determining property distribution by drawing lots dates back to ancient times. In Roman times, Nero was a fan of the lottery as a kind of party entertainment during Saturnalia, and it is recorded in the Bible that Abraham used the casting of lots to divide land and other property among his family.
During the early seventeenth century, private-sector lotteries were common in England and America as ways to sell goods for more money than could be obtained through a normal sale. Public lotteries began to appear in the Low Countries in the 15th century, and towns used them to raise money for town fortifications, help the poor, and for other purposes. Francis I of France introduced lotteries in the 1500s, and they became popular throughout Europe.
The lottery’s rise coincided with a decline in financial security for most working people. Income inequality widened, pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the long-held national promise that hard work and education would lead to a better life than the parents’ had ceased to be true for many children.