The lottery is a fixture in American society — people spend upward of $100 billion on tickets each year, making it the most popular form of gambling. States promote lotteries as a form of “painless revenue,” arguing that players are voluntarily spending their money for the benefit of public services. But is this claim true? And if so, how much is this revenue worth to the state?

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history in human culture. But using it for the purpose of material gain is far more recent, and a rather troubling development. This is especially true in the United States, where the lottery is a wildly popular way to win life-changing sums of cash. But how harmless is it?

Lottery commissions rely on two messages primarily. One is that the games are fun. Billboards dangle the promise of instant riches, and the lure is irresistible to many people. But there is a second message that obscures the regressivity of lotteries: that they are a necessary part of our financial system.

The first thing to understand about the lottery is that the chances of winning are extremely low. The odds of winning the top prize in a typical lottery are about 1 in 50 million. That is a very tiny chance, and it is not even close to the most common prizes in the game. There are, however, many smaller prizes. These are typically awarded to the winners of rollover drawings.