What is a Lottery?


A scheme for the distribution of prizes, especially a gaming scheme in which one or more tickets bearing particular numbers draw prizes and the rest are blanks. The word is also used figuratively as a synonym for irrational gambling behavior.

While making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history—including the Old Testament, the Roman emperors’ giving away property and slaves, and colonial-era American lotteries paving streets and building churches—it is only relatively recently that people have begun to play the lottery for material gain. The first recorded public lotteries to offer tickets with prize money (rather than goods) were held in the 15th century in towns across the Low Countries, to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

Lottery continues to enjoy broad public approval in states that run them, even in times of economic stress. This popularity largely stems from the extent to which lotteries are perceived as contributing to a specific public good, such as education, rather than simply being seen as an alternative to tax increases or cuts in social safety net programs.

But running a lottery as a business requires substantial promotion and advertising, which inevitably targets certain segments of the population—low-income, less educated, nonwhite, or male—to spend their disposable income on the game. These efforts raise serious questions about whether government is doing a good service by encouraging problem gamblers, and about the wisdom of promoting a form of gambling that could ultimately undermine state finances.