Life is a Lottery


A game of chance in which tickets are sold and prizes are awarded by the drawing of lots; often sponsored by a state or charitable organization as a method of raising money. Also used figuratively to describe something that appears to be determined by chance:Life is a lottery.

The game of lottery has a long and colorful history, with its roots in ancient times. In the modern world, state governments run the vast majority of lotteries, which raise millions of dollars every year and offer prizes in a variety of categories, from cash to cars to houses to livestock. The simplest lotteries offer a single prize for each ticket; more sophisticated games allow multiple winners for the same prize. Most states limit the number of tickets that may be purchased in any given period, and the amount that can be staked on a ticket is usually relatively modest.

In a modern economy, where the prospect of a huge jackpot draws people from all walks of life, lottery revenues have become an important source of revenue for many states, providing a welcome alternative to taxes. According to a recent study, in 2010 alone lottery proceeds accounted for almost $25 billion in state budgets, and in the nineteen-seventies and nineties they surpassed the traditional sources of public revenue, including sales and excise taxes.

The lottery has a complex cultural role in American society. For many people, it offers a glimpse of the possibility of unimaginable wealth, and for others it serves as a reminder that hard work and thrift do not guarantee security. Its popularity has grown as the financial security of working Americans has declined; wages have stagnated, health-care costs have soared, and pensions and job security are no longer guarantees against poverty.

Lottery advocates argue that the proceeds go to fund things that the government would not otherwise be able to afford, such as education. But studies show that the lottery does not increase in popularity when the state’s fiscal situation is especially dire, and it has won broad support even when the state’s financial health is robust. In fact, as Clotfelter and Cook write, state lottery profits “appear to be largely independent of the objective fiscal conditions of the states.”

The game’s complexities are reflected in its name, which derives from the Dutch word lot (fate). In the seventeenth century, a number of European nations held lotteries to raise funds for a variety of purposes, from town repairs to military campaigns. In early America, lotteries were tangled up with slavery; George Washington managed one that included human beings as prizes, and a formerly enslaved man bought his freedom in a Virginia lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

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