Whether you play it for fun or think the lottery is your ticket to a better life, millions of Americans spend more than $80 billion annually on the games. But if you win, the odds are pretty low that you’ll come away with much more than your initial investment. In fact, many who win the lottery end up bankrupt in just a few years.

Historically, governments have used lotteries to fund a wide range of projects, from building roads and bridges to providing aid for the poor. But in the 17th century, they also became a way to distribute land and property, as evidenced by the biblical commandments to Moses, as well as the shrewd practice of Roman emperors, who gave away slaves and properties to their subjects through a series of lots drawn on a board. Those who opposed these lottery activities claimed they were tantamount to slavery and encouraged Christians in the United States to boycott them. Yet, despite these early concerns, the lottery has become a popular form of government revenue and a significant factor in the growth of American culture.

The modern state lottery emerged as a popular form of public funding in the post-World War II period, when states sought new sources of revenue without alarming their anti-tax electorates. In addition, it seemed a sensible alternative to raising taxes, since the profits would be collected from individuals who voluntarily spend their money rather than being forced to do so through taxation.

State-run lotteries began to pop up throughout the Northeast and the Rust Belt in the mid-twentieth century, with politicians arguing that their adoption would help ease state budget crises without angering voters. They also claimed that they would boost economic activity, which in turn would make it easier for governments to raise the necessary funds through taxation.

In reality, however, the lotteries were a major cause of the country’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt. In the 1970s, when they first introduced “instant games,” the lotteries expanded rapidly in size and complexity, especially by introducing games that required no advance purchase of tickets. They quickly grew to become the most popular form of gaming, but they have always been subject to intense scrutiny for their effects on society, particularly on lower-income groups.

Lottery defenders often cast it as a form of “taxation on stupidity,” claiming that players don’t understand how rare winning is or that they enjoy playing the game anyway. But, as Cohen notes, sales of lottery products are highly responsive to economic fluctuations, with sales rising when incomes fall, unemployment rises, or poverty rates spike, and advertising is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, Hispanic, or poor. In short, the lottery is a marketing tool designed to sell a product that’s inherently regressive and addictive. As a result, it’s a political and social problem that’s likely to persist. In the end, it is human nature that’s the real problem.