The official lottery is a state-sanctioned game of chance that draws players from all walks of life, often with poor odds but great rewards. The first such games emerged in the fourteenth century, when they were used to raise funds for everything from town fortifications to charitable causes. In the seventeenth century, lotteries became an alternative to direct taxation and a way of financing public works. Early America was especially fond of these games, which proved a valuable source of revenue in a nation defined by its aversion to taxes.

Even today, a majority of states use lotteries to raise money for schools and other services. But critics say that state-run lotteries are regressive, taking money from lower-income communities. Research suggests that ad campaigns are biased toward those most likely to play, and that instant scratch-off games are promoted in communities that are disproportionately black or brown. These communities are also the most afflicted by gambling addiction.

Those concerns are largely valid, but the lottery still attracts vulnerable Americans in search of a dream. It offers a chance to escape from financial insecurity, as well as the shackles of inequality and discrimination. In the words of one historian, “Lotteries are the mechanism through which the American dream is sold to those who cannot get ahead in the conventional economy.”