What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which numbered tickets are drawn at random to determine a prize. It is a popular form of gambling, with state governments offering numerous games to raise revenue for a wide variety of purposes. Lotteries are controversial because of their ability to appeal to the public’s basic desire to win money. Critics point to the high probability of losing large sums, the time and expense required to play, the often-inflated value of prizes (when winning a jackpot, the money is paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes significantly reducing the current value), and the way advertising is used to target vulnerable groups, such as poor people.

The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in human history, including several instances recorded in the Bible. It is more recent to use the process for material gain, however. The first known public lottery to distribute items of unequal value was organized by Augustus Caesar for repairs in the city of Rome, and Francis I introduced a French version in 1539.

Today’s state lotteries are modeled on the Spanish “vendimiento” or gifting system, which dates back to the Middle Ages and the Spanish Inquisition. It involved a number of privileged social classes, including wealthy nobles, giving away valuable gifts to members of the lower classes and clergy. This method of distributing wealth was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it became an important source of income for many families.

In the United States, state lotteries were introduced in 1964, and since then, they have been adopted by 37 of the country’s 50 states. In the early days of lotteries, they resembled traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for a drawing to be held in a future date, weeks or even months in advance. But innovations in the 1970s transformed lotteries, making them much more like games of chance.

A common feature of state-run lotteries is that they develop extensive, specific constituencies: convenience store owners (who usually serve as vendors); lottery suppliers, who contribute heavily to the campaigns of state legislators; teachers, whose salaries are subsidized by lottery revenues; and the general public itself.

The widespread popularity of state-run lotteries leads to a fundamental question: Is it appropriate for government at any level to promote an activity from which it profits? It is hard to imagine a rational justification for the promotion of an activity that has negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers, especially when the state’s primary function is to provide services for its citizens. The answer is probably no, but the matter is complicated by the fact that the lottery industry has become highly successful in its pursuit of a lucrative market niche. As such, it may have to continue to adapt its offerings to the needs of its customers in order to remain competitive.