What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which tokens are distributed or sold, and a drawing held to determine the winners. Typically, the tokens are cash prizes, such as the jackpot of the Mega Millions or Powerball, or goods and services. The prize money may be a fixed sum of money, a percentage of sales, or an all-out prize for the top winner. The word is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “assignment of lots.” In the United States, state-sponsored lottery games are usually run by a lottery commission or board. The commission or board will enact laws regulating the lottery, select and license retailers, train employees of those retailers to use terminals, print tickets, sell and redeem tickets, pay high-tier prizes, assist retailers in promoting the lottery, and ensure that retailers and players comply with state law and regulations.

Although the casting of lots has a long history in human affairs—there are several instances in the Bible, for example—lotteries for material gain only began to become popular in the 17th century. Towns in the Low Countries drew lots for everything from town fortifications to helping the poor. By the end of the 19th century, they had become widespread in the United States and elsewhere.

In the first few decades after World War II, people saw lottery proceeds as a way to fund an ever-expanding array of public usages—such as schools, roads, and hospitals—without excessively burdening middle-class and working classes. In the 1960s, that arrangement began to collapse under inflation, as states tapped into the lottery funds for other purposes.

Lottery marketing relies on the message that even if you don’t win, your purchase of a ticket is a good thing because it will help the state. That’s a faulty argument, of course. The money that states receive from the lottery is a drop in the bucket of state revenue.

Most importantly, lottery advertising dangles the promise of instant wealth in a society where most people lack the means to create it on their own. As a result, the lottery’s player base is disproportionately lower-income and less educated, with many being nonwhite. In a world where social mobility is limited, it seems that lottery advertisements appeal to an inexplicable but powerful human urge to gamble.