What Does the Lottery Say About Race and Inequality?

A lottery is an arrangement by which prizes, such as cash or goods, are allocated in a process that relies solely on chance. Lotteries have been common throughout history and are widely used in countries around the world. Currently, most states and the European Union operate state-sponsored lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes. Historically, private lotteries were popular in England and the United States. In the 18th century, the Continental Congress sponsored a lottery to fund the American Revolution, and colonial-era Americans held private lotteries to help build Harvard, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and other colleges.

Since 1964, when New Hampshire introduced its state lottery, almost every state has followed suit. The adoption of lotteries has taken place in nearly identical fashion: each state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery, rather than licensing a private company in exchange for a share of profits; begins with a relatively small number of modest games; and, due to a steady stream of revenue from ticket sales, progressively expands the size and complexity of its offerings.

It’s important to remember that state lotteries are a form of gambling. People choose to play them based on an inextricable human impulse, and billboards that advertise the obscenely large jackpots of Powerball or Mega Millions appeal to that same impulse. Yet it’s also worth examining what kind of message the lottery sends in an era of growing inequality and limited social mobility.