The Pros and Cons of the Lottery


Whether you are playing Powerball, Mega Millions or a smaller state lottery, chances are your chance of winning is 1 in 292. And while some people try to increase their odds by buying every number combination (which doesn’t work for Powerball or Mega Millions because there are too many tickets), others have tried more sophisticated approaches.

One argument for lotteries is that they allow states to expand the array of services they offer without significantly raising taxes on middle-class and working-class people. Lottery proponents have argued this point forcefully since the mid-1960s, even in the face of mounting inflation and the growing costs of the Vietnam War.

But other arguments, more focused on how and when lotteries are conducted, have become the focus of criticism. Criticisms have ranged from allegations that the exploitation of vulnerable people by lotteries is wrong to concerns about compulsive gambling and the regressive impact on lower-income populations.

The idea of allocating property or other goods by chance goes back to ancient times. The Bible mentions a “drawing of lots” to distribute land in Israel, and the Roman emperors used it for slaves and other goods during Saturnalian feasts.

The first modern lotteries appeared in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders, where towns used them to raise money for fortifying defenses and aiding the poor. France’s Francis I allowed a series of public lotteries from 1520 to 1539. The word ‘lottery’ is derived from the Dutch noun lot meaning fate, and is believed to be cognate with the Old English term for a random distribution of items.