How Lottery Jackpots Are Linking Hope and Wealth

In a time of economic inequality and limited social mobility, lottery jackpots dangle the promise of instant riches. Many people are drawn to the game for this reason, but there’s a deeper issue at play: Lotteries are fostering an inextricable link between hope and wealth.

The first recorded lotteries appeared in the 15th century in the Low Countries, where towns held them to raise money for building town walls and for poor relief. They were also hailed as painless forms of taxation, with players voluntarily spending their money to benefit the common good.

Today, most states offer a variety of lotteries, from scratch-off tickets to multimillion-dollar prizes. The odds of winning vary widely, but most games offer around a 1 in 50 chance of a prize. The vast majority of tickets are sold to individuals, while a few are sold by governments and other organizations.

Traditionally, state lotteries have operated like traditional raffles, where the public buys tickets in advance of a future drawing to win a prize. But innovation has transformed the industry, with companies offering “instant games,” which give participants a chance to win cash and other prizes immediately after purchase. These games are proving to be much more popular than traditional lottery offerings, which can take weeks or even months for a winner to be declared.