What is the Lottery?



A game of chance in which players pay for a ticket with numbers on it and prizes are awarded to those who match winning combinations. It is usually sponsored by a government as a way of raising funds. The word comes from the Old English for “drawing by lots.” Drawing lots is also the name of a method used in ancient times to decide ownership and other rights. The lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world, with a market that has grown to be worth billions.

Lotteries began in England in the fourteenth century as a way to finance settlement of the New World and the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. By the seventeenth century, state-sponsored lotteries were common throughout Europe. Lotteries were the chief source of funding for colonial America as well, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, and Thomas Jefferson once held a private lottery to relieve crushing debts.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, lottery profits have financed wars, colleges, towns, and public-works projects. During the late twentieth century, as tax revolts swept across the nation, politicians looked to lotteries as a source of comparatively painless revenue. Voters, they argued, would voluntarily spend their money on the state lottery in return for a small chance of benefiting the community.

But critics have pointed out that lotteries are not painless. In fact, they are inefficient and can be detrimental to the health of society. They are often run like businesses with a profit motive, and promotional campaigns are designed to persuade as many people as possible to buy tickets. They are inherently addictive and can create significant financial problems for low-income individuals and the poor.

As a result, a number of states have begun to limit or restrict their lotteries in recent years. Several have even shut down completely. The state of California, for example, reported that sales of its lotto tickets fell by more than 20% in 2003 compared to 2002.

Other states that have seen lottery revenues decline include Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. And the number of retailers that sell lottery tickets has dropped too, although some retailers are expanding their sales and marketing efforts. The remaining lotteries in the United States are sold at gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and bars, bowling alleys, and newsstands. Almost 187,000 retailers sold tickets in 2003. Many of these retailers are privately owned, and most are nonprofit organizations (including churches and fraternal groups). The largest retailer is the National Association of State Lottery Operators. Other operators include independent stores and chain retailers. Most lottery retail outlets are not open to the general public. In addition, there are online retailers. The vast majority of lottery sales take place in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. The rest of the country is more lottery-averse.