What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine ownership or rights. Lotteries are typically run by governments or public corporations. They are a source of revenue for government programs, but they are not intended to replace taxes or other conventional sources of income. They are, however, often criticized for their negative impact on the poor and problem gamblers, whose participation is not voluntary.

The term lottery has also come to mean an activity or event in which one’s fate is determined by chance. For example, a job interview may be referred to as a “job lottery,” while a marriage is a “marriage lottery.” People play the lottery because they enjoy the feeling of hopelessness—the sense that there is a sliver of a chance that their luck will change for the better.

The first state lotteries in the United States were held as early as 1612. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson attempted a private lottery to help alleviate his debts. Today, state lotteries are common and widely supported by the general public, with a large portion of proceeds earmarked for education, public-works projects, and other social services.

Traditionally, lotteries are operated by governments that grant themselves a legal monopoly to sell tickets and award prizes. In the United States, for instance, the federal government oversees state lotteries and prohibits private competitors from competing with them. As of 2004, nearly every state had a lottery. (See Figure 7.1.) The lottery has also become popular in some countries outside the United States, with foreign governments selling tickets to residents of their respective nations.

For lottery profits to increase, participants must be persuaded to spend money on tickets. This requires substantial advertising and promotion, and it can result in problems if the lottery is promoted to a group with a history of gambling disorders or other problem behaviors.

Lotteries have developed a wide range of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who are the usual ticket vendors); suppliers of scratch-off tickets; teachers (in states where lotteries’ revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who become accustomed to the extra cash).

Because they are run as businesses with a strong emphasis on maximizing revenues, lottery officials must spend enormous amounts on advertising. This can produce a host of social issues, from the proliferation of gambling to the effects of lottery advertising on children and other vulnerable groups. Moreover, because they are promoted as gambling, lotteries are at odds with the general social agenda of many governments. This is an issue that will continue to evolve as lotteries expand into new games and a more aggressive marketing campaign. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have considered the issue and concluded that “a lottery is a type of game in which a number or symbols are drawn to determine ownership or rights.” The dictionary’s editors believe this definition accurately captures the nature of the modern commercial lotteries, which are a form of government-sponsored gambling.