The recent $1.9 billion Powerball jackpot has fueled an increase in lottery play across the U.S., but critics warn that state-run lotteries aren’t just harmful to the environment: they also disproportionately hurt low-income communities and minorities. In fact, a study of Consumer Expenditure Surveys found that states that introduced lotteries saw a drop in non-gambling spending among households in the lowest income third. Similarly, researchers have found that lottery retailers are disproportionately located in lower-income neighborhoods. “This is an industry that clearly seeks to take advantage of vulnerable or adverse communities,” writes Fong.

In the 14th century, European lotteries were common in Burgundy and Flanders as towns raised money to build town fortifications or help the poor. This trend carried over to the Americas, where colonial ventures chartered by King Charles I used public lotteries to finance Jamestown, Virginia and other settlements. Over time, playing the lottery became a popular practice in American culture and was seen as a civic responsibility. Public lotteries helped establish churches, libraries and, eventually, the nation’s first prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

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