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The Dangers of Playing the Lottery

Since New Hampshire introduced the modern lottery in 1964, state governments across the country have adopted their own versions. These days, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. And, as you might expect, people play them regularly. In fact, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 60% of adults in states with lotteries report playing at least once a year. And, as you might not guess, the state government gets a cut of those winnings — about 40%. This pays for commissions to the retailers that sell tickets, covers the overhead of running the lottery system itself, and funds programs like education and gambling addiction initiatives.

There are many reasons why people choose to play. In some cases, they simply enjoy gambling. But, in other cases, there is a strong sense of civic duty to support a good cause.

In colonial America, for example, a great deal of public infrastructure — including roads, libraries, churches, and universities — was funded by lotteries. Columbia and Princeton are just two of the many institutions that owe their existence to lottery money.

But, as the industry continues to evolve, debates about state lotteries shift from a discussion of their general desirability to more detailed concerns such as the prevalence of compulsive gamblers and their alleged regressive impact on lower-income communities. Whether those criticisms are valid or not, there is no doubt that, by advertising the promise of instant wealth, lotteries promote an unhealthy form of gambling.