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Lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets with the hope of winning a prize, often cash. The prize can also be goods or services. Typically, the organizers of the lottery set a fixed amount or percentage of total ticket sales as the prize fund and distribute winning tickets to players. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. They raised money for town fortifications and to help the poor. Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery in 1768 to buy cannons for Philadelphia, and George Washington was the manager of a 1769 slave lottery in Virginia that advertised land and slaves as prizes.

In the United States, state-run lotteries are a common way for governments to raise revenue. Between 1964 and 2019, lotteries have raised $502 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, but it is only about 1 to 2 percent of the revenue of state governments. Most of that money is collected inefficiently and distributed inequitably. It is collected from a player base that is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite.

Lotteries have long been criticized for their addictive nature and the fact that there is a much higher chance of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than winning the Mega Millions jackpot. But there is something else going on with these games that isn’t always recognized: they are dangling the dream of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited opportunities for social mobility.