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The Lottery and Its Consequences

The lottery is a game of chance in which players pay for tickets, select numbers and hope they will be drawn at some future date. Prizes can range from small cash amounts to units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a well-regarded public school. This is just one of many ways in which the casting of lots plays out in our daily lives and can have serious, even life-changing consequences.

Lotteries have a long history in human society and are attested to in the Bible, where the casting of lots is used for everything from divining God’s will to selecting kings and judges. In colonial-era America, they were widely used to fund construction projects and public works such as roads and waterworks. Some were tangled up with the slave trade (one enslaved person, Denmark Vesey, bought his freedom in a Virginia lottery and later helped foment a slave rebellion).

State-sponsored lotteries are commonplace, with almost every state now having at least one. They have become a major source of state revenues, particularly in an anti-tax era, and are often hailed as “painless” forms of taxation. But lotteries are not just gambling, and the way they operate suggests that they may be doing more harm than good. They rely on advertising and marketing to maximize revenues, and the way they are run raises concerns about how they might promote gambling addiction and negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers.

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