The idea of determining fates or even deciding who lives and dies by casting lots has an inextricable place in human history. But lotteries as a way to raise money for the public good are much newer. The first recorded public lotteries to offer tickets for sale with prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for purposes such as municipal repairs and helping the poor.

Nowadays, people spend about $100 billion a year on lottery tickets. It’s the most popular form of gambling, and state officials promote it as a source of “painless” revenue—the idea being that players are voluntarily spending their money rather than being taxed by the government. The problem is that this messaging obscures how regressive the game really is.

Moreover, it distracts from the real reason that lottery games have become so popular: they provide a glimmer of hope for a better future in an age of increasing inequality and shrinking social mobility. The most obvious example is that lotteries sell the idea that it’s possible for anyone to win the jackpot.

This premise is contradicted by the law of large numbers, which concludes that most players will lose over time. It’s also contradicted by the fact that the vast majority of lottery money is collected from the top 20 percent of earners. Nonetheless, many players believe that there are ways to increase their odds. For instance, they may select a number that has personal significance or a lucky store or a certain day of the week.

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