A lottery is a game in which people buy numbered tickets and winners are chosen by chance. It’s the only game in which your current situation doesn’t matter – your age, gender, size, race or income level has nothing to do with your odds of winning.

I’ve talked to lots of lottery players, people who have been playing for years and spend $50 or $100 a week on tickets. These are people who, in contrast to the irrational gamblers I’ve met on the street, go in clear-eyed about the odds. They know the numbers they’re picking have a chance of being drawn, and they know that for the big games, those odds are long.

Lottery players tend to be concentrated in middle-income neighborhoods. But state-run lotteries have the unintended effect of raising taxes for the poor disproportionately more than for the rich. This has been true since the first modern lotteries were introduced to the United States in the late 1700s, even though the original intention of state governments was to raise money to support social safety net programs without increasing overall taxation.

The word “lottery” is derived from the Latin for drawing lots, and it was used in ancient times to determine distribution of property and slaves. In the Old Testament, for example, Moses was instructed to take a census of Israel’s population and divide its land by lottery, and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves via lot.