Life’s a Lottery


A game of chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes awarded to those whose numbers are drawn at random: sometimes organized by states as a means of raising funds. Also used figuratively to refer to any undertaking that seems to depend on fate or fortune: Life’s a lottery, isn’t it?

Lottery has been around for a long time. Town records from the Low Countries in the 16th century show that towns held lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor.

The state of Massachusetts was one of the first to organize a lottery in 1639 and the New York Lottery was the world’s oldest ongoing lottery, having been founded in 1726. Other states quickly followed suit, believing that a lottery could provide them with enough revenue to expand their social safety nets without the onerous burden of higher taxes on middle-class and working class people.

Today, the message from most lottery commissions is that playing is fun and it’s okay to spend a little of your paycheck on a chance to win big. But a look at the actual distribution of lottery playing in America tells a different story. People who play the lottery are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite and male.

People pick their lottery numbers using all kinds of arcane, mystical, thoughtful and thoughtless, numerological, birthday or pattern-based methods. The fact is, though, that picking a winning combination of numbers has nothing to do with past or future luck. Each lottery drawing is a unique independent event.