In a world of inequality and limited social mobility, lottery is dangling the promise of instant riches, even for people who don’t gamble. This is why you see so many billboards advertising Mega Millions jackpots of more than a billion dollars.
But there’s more to lottery than just the size of the prize. The lottery also sends a message that the game benefits society — or at least, states — by providing a small revenue stream. This is a subtle message, but it’s important.
Historically, states have used lotteries to raise money for a variety of projects and programs. The first lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and other civic improvements, according to historical records. The founding fathers were big supporters of lotteries, including Benjamin Franklin, who ran a lottery to raise funds for the colonist militia in 1748. John Hancock ran a lottery in 1767 to fund Boston’s Faneuil Hall and George Washington ran one in Virginia to help build a road over a mountain pass.
Today, state lotteries raise money for a wide range of public services and initiatives, from education to health care and infrastructure. But the real benefit of lotteries is that they give people a chance to win cash, goods and other prizes, without having to pay taxes. That’s a pretty significant perk in a time when state governments are trying to cut costs and limit tax increases for the middle class.