What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a game in which people purchase numbered tickets and the winners are chosen by a random drawing of numbers. A lottery is considered a form of gambling, but it is not illegal in all states. Prizes in the form of cash or goods are awarded to those who win the lottery. It is a common pastime among people of all ages. In the past, it was used to raise funds for town fortifications and to help poor families. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century.

The modern lottery follows a similar pattern: a state legislates a monopoly for itself or licenses a private promoter in exchange for a share of profits; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, because of pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its offerings. It’s easy to see why the game appeals to so many: There’s an inextricable human impulse to gamble. Billboards hyping the size of the jackpots, and the fact that there is a rare chance to win big, entice people to spend money they don’t necessarily have on tickets with a very long shot of winning.

Lottery commissions try to obscure the regressivity of this behavior by sending the message that it is a fun activity, and that if you buy a ticket you are doing your civic duty to support state government. But I’ve never seen that put in the context of overall state fiscal health, or a discussion of the specific benefits of those revenues to the broader public.