What is a Lottery?


The term lottery is derived from the Dutch word lot, meaning “fate” or “destiny.” The drawing of lots to determine fates and material possessions has a long history dating back centuries. It was used in the Old Testament to instruct Moses to take a census of Israel and divide land among its citizens, and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves via lot. In the 16th and 17th centuries, lottery-type games became popular in Europe and America as a means to raise funds for public projects such as paving streets, building wharves, constructing bridges, and funding colleges such as Harvard and Yale.

In modern times, state lotteries are remarkably popular. They are widely supported by the general public, and have developed extensive specific constituencies. These include convenience store operators (who often act as major lottery vendors); suppliers of goods and services to the lotteries (heavy contributions by these firms to state political campaigns are routinely reported); teachers (in states where lotteries are earmarked for education) and many others. Lotteries have also sparked intense debate and criticism, both from those who argue they are irrational, addictive, and socially damaging and from those who criticize the way state lotteries operate and distribute their profits.

Lotteries are essentially organized raffles. The public purchases tickets that are entered in a drawing to win a prize, such as cash or goods. In most lotteries, the total value of prizes is the amount left over after all costs, including the promoter’s profits and promotion expenses, have been deducted. The odds against winning are usually fairly high, although some states adjust the odds to attract more customers by increasing or decreasing the number of prizes and by adding new games.

Once a lottery is established, its revenues grow rapidly. But if the jackpots get too large, ticket sales can decline. To keep revenue growth steady, lotteries are constantly introducing new games. One of the most popular innovations is scratch-off tickets, which offer smaller prizes and lower odds of winning than other games. These types of games have grown in popularity because they are easy to buy and play, and provide a way for people to feel like they are getting something for nothing.