What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a type of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize winner. Prizes can be anything from cash to goods or services. Some lotteries give a percentage of the profits to charitable causes. Others use the proceeds for government projects. Lotteries have a long history and are found worldwide. The oldest known lottery was held during the Roman Empire as a form of entertainment at dinner parties. Each guest was given a ticket and the prizes often consisted of fancy items such as dinnerware. The modern state-sponsored lottery first appeared in Europe in the 1500s and quickly became popular in many countries, including the United States.

The word “lottery” is derived from the Latin word “loterius,” meaning drawing lots. The casting of lots for decision making and determining fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. The first public lotteries were organized by the Roman Emperor Augustus to raise money for city repairs. The idea was adopted by the European world in the early 17th century, although it did not achieve mass appeal until the 18th century. The American Revolution saw Benjamin Franklin sponsor an unsuccessful lottery to raise funds for cannons for Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson also sponsored a private lottery to relieve his crushing debts.

Since 1964, 37 states have instituted state lotteries. They generally follow a similar pattern: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private company in return for a cut of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the lottery’s size and complexity.

The state-sponsored lottery is a major source of revenue for the state government. In Alabama, for example, the lottery has produced more than $8 billion in revenue over its history. In addition, its promotion has stimulated the state’s economy and led to higher levels of employment. Nonetheless, assessing the lottery’s costs and benefits is difficult. The costs are ill-defined and often lumped in with general gambling expenses, and the benefits rely on uncertain return on money that would otherwise be spent outside the state.

The lottery has its critics, notably its alleged regressive impact on low-income households and its role in the rise of compulsive gambling. But these concerns, like the lottery’s success, focus on particular features of its operations, rather than the fundamental desirability of the lottery itself. The question remains: Is running a state lottery an appropriate function of government?