What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which prize money is allocated by chance. Prizes are often money or goods. The term also can refer to any type of competition or game in which the outcome depends on luck or chance. The use of lotteries to allocate property and other rights is recorded in many ancient documents. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the practice became common in Europe as public and private organizations used them to raise funds for wars, colleges, towns, and public-works projects. In the early American era, Benjamin Franklin sponsored one to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British; Thomas Jefferson managed another whose prizes included human beings; and George Washington organized an auction of slaves to help relieve his crushing debts.

Lottery revenues have become a major source of state government revenue. In an anti-tax era, politicians at all levels are eager to maximize these revenues. Lotteries are particularly attractive to states that have high levels of income taxation and limited capacity to raise other taxes.

Once a state adopts a lottery, it legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of the profits); and begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Initially, revenues grow dramatically. But the constant pressure for additional revenues leads to steady expansion of the lottery in terms of new games and increasing prize amounts.

Because of this, most state lotteries are not in a position to be shut down. They are able to sustain substantial sales growth even when other state programs experience declines in popularity or public support. The fact that the proceeds from the lottery are earmarked for a particular public benefit, such as education, is an important factor in winning and maintaining popular approval of the program.

State lotteries draw large audiences that are not restricted by age, race, or class. They are especially popular in the Northeast and Rust Belt states, where people can buy a ticket at a convenience store or at a check-cashing outlet while buying food or gas. Lottery retailers are typically not licensed to sell tobacco or alcohol, so they do not compete with bars and restaurants for patrons. They may operate out of supermarkets, convenience stores, gas stations, or even churches and fraternal organizations.

Lottery participants are not necessarily compulsive gamblers, but they tend to have a fairly high tolerance for risk. This explains why, when they win, many of them keep playing. They are drawn to the excitement of a potential big jackpot and to the prospect of winning a larger amount than they would have received had they invested their money in a low-risk investment. The psychological addiction to the lottery is not unlike the addictive qualities of nicotine or video games. The ad campaigns, the look of the tickets, and the math behind the games are designed to keep players coming back for more.