The Truth About the Lottery


The practice of casting lots for property and other decisions has a long history (a number of biblical examples, for instance). But the lottery is comparatively new as a method of distributing large sums of money to a large population. The first lotteries in the modern sense of the term appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, with towns raising funds to fortify defenses or to aid the poor. The first public lottery to offer prizes in the form of cash was probably held in 1466 in Bruges. Lotteries came to the American colonies with a similar pattern, playing a significant role in the financing of private and public ventures, including supplying cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British, building the library at the British Museum, and building canals, bridges, churches, colleges, and other projects.

Lotteries continue to flourish, although critics are increasingly focusing on specific features of their operations, such as the prevalence of compulsive gambling and the regressive impact on lower-income populations. Lottery advertisements commonly mislead the public about odds of winning, inflate the value of jackpots by spreading them over decades and allowing them to be eroded by inflation and taxes, and omit information about the percentage of ticket sales that are returned as prize money.

Even so, people are still drawn to the prospect of winning big—especially when jackpots reach seemingly newsworthy levels. But the reality is that the odds are very high that you will not win. Rather than running off to buy more tickets, it is best to take a deep breath and consider carefully what you would do if you won the lottery.