The Truth About Lottery Winnings

A lot of people are buying lottery tickets. The jackpots have been increasing, and it’s easy to fantasize about what you would do if you won: instant riches might mean an immediate spending spree, a new car, luxury vacations. Or you could take a more responsible approach and put most of it in a variety of savings and investment accounts, presumably allowing you to live off the interest over 29 years. But it’s not that simple.

Lotteries have a long history, and making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has been used for centuries, including several times in the Bible. But the first public lottery to distribute prizes of money is widely believed to have been held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. These were often held to raise funds for towns and town fortifications or to help the poor, and many are recorded in the town records of Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges.

But the modern era of state-run lotteries began in the post-World War II period, when states were looking to expand their social safety nets with less onerous taxes on the middle and working classes. These were not a popular idea at the time, but by the 1960s they had become the norm.

Lottery advertising focuses on two messages primarily: It’s fun to buy a ticket, and it might be your lucky day. This coded message obscures the regressivity of state-sponsored gambling and masks how much people are really spending.