The lottery is a game in which people buy tickets to win a prize. Some prizes are small, such as a free drink, while others are large cash sums. Typically, lottery tickets cost one dollar. Lottery revenues generate millions of dollars for state governments each year, and many people play for fun or as a way to improve their lives.

But the lottery has a dark underbelly. It’s that, for some people, it becomes a desperate, last-ditch attempt to break out of a cycle of poverty. The odds of winning a lottery jackpot are extremely low, but there’s an inextricable human impulse to gamble. Lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches in front of people who can’t afford to buy much else. And they do so with an aggressive marketing campaign that obscures the regressive impact of the games.

Lottery marketing aims to convince people that playing the lottery is good for society. The messages largely ignore the reality that lotteries are a form of gambling, and that for most people they’re an expensive, irreversible choice. They also fail to mention the enormous amount of money that goes towards advertising, and the relatively small percentage of the total prize pool that actually makes its way to the winner.

I’ve spoken to a number of lottery players—people who have been playing for years, spending $50 or $100 a week. Their conversations defy expectations, which are that these people are irrational and don’t know how the odds work. Instead, these folks are clear-eyed about the odds and how the games work. They understand that their chances of winning are long, but they still believe that the game will somehow change their life for the better.

There’s a logical conclusion to this: if you keep playing, eventually, your luck will turn around. If you’ve lost everything, maybe the next draw will be the one that saves your life. This is a powerful logical argument that’s hard to argue against.

In addition to attracting the general public, lottery marketing targets a range of specific constituencies: convenience store owners (lotteries are a staple of their business); suppliers (heavy contributions from these businesses to state political campaigns are commonly reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who are quickly accustomed to the additional revenue).

The word “lottery” comes from the Latin for “drawing lots.” The practice dates back to biblical times, when property was distributed by chance, and the Roman emperors held Saturnalian feasts in which winners were selected by lot. In modern usage, the term is used for a variety of contests that depend on fate—including military conscription, commercial promotions in which prizes are given away by random selection, and selecting members of a jury. The term has also been applied to activities that are essentially games of chance, such as the stock market. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.