The Truth About the Lottery


Lottery is a big moneymaker for states and offers the glib hope of instant riches to people who buy tickets with numbers that are randomly picked. It can also refer to any sort of contest where selections are made by chance. For instance, schools choose students using a lottery system. The earliest recorded lotteries sold numbered tickets for a prize in the form of cash; records from the 15th century indicate that such lotteries were being held in towns throughout the Low Countries to raise funds to build town fortifications and help the poor.

During the immediate post-World War II period, state governments were able to expand services without especially onerous taxes on middle- and working class families, but by the 1960s this arrangement began to crumble. Lotteries, along with casinos, became a way to generate revenue without raising taxes.

A lot of people think they have a small, improbable shot at winning the lottery. That is part of the reason that so many of them spend $80 billion a year. But the truth is that this money could be better spent building an emergency fund or paying off credit card debt.

The top prizes in lottery games are usually awarded as annuities, which will pay a winner in 29 annual payments, each increasing by 5%. This method keeps the jackpots growing to apparently newsworthy levels, driving ticket sales. However, it is a bit of a shell game: The actual top prize is often less than the advertised jackpot because the prize pool is shared among all ticket buyers.