A lottery is an arrangement where a prize is allocated by a process that relies on chance. It may be used to determine who gets a job or where an apartment is located, or to choose players in a sporting team among equally competing applicants. In a financial lottery, participants pay a fee to enter the drawing and are awarded prizes if their numbers match those selected randomly by machines.
Lotteries have become popular in the United States, despite religious and other prohibitions against gambling. The first state lottery in the modern era began in New Hampshire in 1964, and was adopted by 13 more states within five years. The national trend toward tax aversion at the time made lottery appeal seem appealing to states seeking alternatives to raising taxes on middle-class and working families.
The popularity of the lottery also reflects people’s desire to believe that they can improve their circumstances by chance. In a society with increasing inequality and limited opportunities for social mobility, lottery advertising offers the prospect of an instant richness that seems especially alluring to poor and working-class households.
Defenders of the lottery argue that it is a “tax on the stupid.” They suggest that the majority of people who play the lottery don’t understand or care about how unlikely it is to win, and that they enjoy the game regardless. This argument ignores the fact that lottery sales and revenues tend to increase when incomes fall or unemployment rises, and that the advertising for lottery products is disproportionately promoted in low-income neighborhoods.