What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance that involves paying money for a ticket and hoping to win a prize. A variety of governments and private organizations use lotteries to raise money or distribute goods and services. Some examples of lotteries include the allocation of subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. A lottery is also used to select a winner in sports, and some states have legalized casinos that run lotteries to attract gamblers. In a public lottery, winners are selected at random using either an old-fashioned drawing of slips of paper or computerized machines. The word “lottery” comes from the French phrase loterie, which is probably derived from the Latin verb lotio, meaning “to cast lots.” People have been drawing lots for thousands of years, as evidenced by the use of lottery-like games in ancient Rome (Nero loved them) and the casting of lots in the Bible for everything from choosing the next king of Israel to determining whether Jesus’s garments would be preserved after the Crucifixion.

In early America, lotteries were a common way to raise money for public works and charitable causes. They were so popular that they even helped finance the American Revolution, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

Lotteries were also a frequent source of tax revenue. In the fourteen-hundreds, they provided much of the funding for England’s colonization of America and financed projects such as building town fortifications and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. They were particularly popular in the northeastern United States, where taxes were high and government revenue was scarce.

But in the late twentieth century, a tax revolt swept through the nation, and state-run lotteries became controversial. Defenders of the lottery argued that, since people are going to gamble anyway, it’s fair for governments to pocket the profits. This argument was a convenient rationalization for allowing state-run gambling, but it also obscured the fact that lotteries are regressive and promote a fantasy of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility.

Moreover, because lotteries are run as businesses, their advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend their money. This is at cross-purposes with the state’s larger mission of providing public services and benefits to all its citizens. It is also true that, as with all commercial products, lottery play varies by socioeconomic status: Men tend to play more than women; blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; the young and the old-fashioned middle play less; and, overall, lottery play declines with education, even though non-lottery gambling increases with it.