The lottery is a form of gambling in which chances are sold for the right to win money or goods. In modern times, lotteries are also used to award scholarships for higher education and other public benefits. Lottery officials argue that their profits and the proceeds from ticket sales benefit public services, including local government and education, while providing a “safety net” for the poor. However, critics argue that these revenues are “inappropriately targeted,” resulting in a “regressive” tax on low-income residents who are more likely to play.

A reluctance to raise taxes made the lottery an attractive option for state legislators desperate to maintain public services without inflaming an antitax populace. As Cohen explains, “Lotteries were essentially budgetary miracles: states could make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air and thus avoid upsetting voters.”

Despite a long history of moral and religious opposition, the lottery became widely accepted in America after the Civil War. Its popularity has continued to grow, especially as more states struggle with budget deficits and the public shows little appetite for a tax hike.

While the public may believe that it is fun to gamble on the next big jackpot, the truth is that most people play for two reasons: the hope of winning and an inexorable belief that they are entitled to wealth and prosperity. In addition, studies show that lottery retailers are disproportionately located in low-income communities. These facts obscure the regressive nature of the lottery and the harm it does to the poor.