What is a Lottery?


Lottery, a system of raising money for a public purpose by drawing lots for prizes. The term is also used of the chance to win something by means other than hard work or skill, as when someone mentions that it’s “a bit of a lottery” who gets a job or a house.

While making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history (Nero loved his lotteries), the modern lottery is relatively recent. Its rise owes to state governments’ need for new revenue sources in the immediate post-World War II period, when they could expand their social safety nets without onerous increases in taxes on working people.

By the mid-twentieth century, twelve states had started lotteries, and sales have continued to grow, increasing by thirty-four percent between 1992 and 2003. In many cases, government officials rely on the psychology of addiction: slick advertising, games with attractive prize levels and odds, and even the appearance of the tickets are designed to keep players hooked.

Lottery revenues help sustain a number of specific constituencies—convenience store owners, who sell the tickets; suppliers to the lotteries, who often donate heavily to state political campaigns; teachers in states that earmark lottery funds for education; and, of course, lottery commissioners themselves, who get accustomed to a steady flow of income. But there are also serious structural issues at play. Among them: lottery spending increases as incomes fall and unemployment grows, and it is concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

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