What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which people purchase tickets to win prizes such as money or goods. Although some governments outlaw lotteries, others endorse them and regulate them. Many private companies promote and conduct lotteries in the United States, but the largest are state-sponsored. Modern-day lotteries are also used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters. In the strict sense of the word, a lottery is a form of gambling; to be legal under the laws of many countries, payment of some sort (money, work, or goods) must be made for a chance to win.

Lotteries have long had a wide appeal as a method of raising money. They are easy to organize, inexpensive for the government, and popular with the general public. The practice can be traced back to the Roman Empire, where Emperor Augustus organized a lottery to raise funds for repairs in the city of Rome. Later, the practice grew in popularity in the Low Countries, where lottery profits were used to build town fortifications and help the poor.

By the nineteenth century, public lotteries were popular throughout England and the United States. The Boston Mercantile Journal reported in 1832 that 420 lottery games were held in eight states that year. Although the chances of winning a prize in a lottery are slim, the jackpots can be enormous–the biggest prize ever was a quarter of a billion dollars, won by three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut.

The big problem for lottery organizers, writes Cohen, is that winners tend to spend more on tickets than non-winners. Those making more than fifty thousand dollars a year, for instance, spend on average one per cent of their income on tickets; those making less than thirty thousand spend thirteen per cent. In the end, Cohen argues, this can create serious imbalances in society.

As the twentieth century unfolded, growing awareness of the huge profits to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. For many states, especially those with generous social safety nets, balancing the budget became increasingly difficult without hiking taxes or cutting services, both of which were deeply unpopular with voters. Lotteries offered politicians the opportunity to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air and free them from having to broach the difficult topic of taxation.

The history of the lottery is full of ironies. As an entertainment, it was popular in ancient Rome–Nero himself was a fan–and in the Bible, where lots were cast for everything from who got to keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion to whom the land would be granted when Israel became a nation. Today, the odds of winning a prize in the lottery are still slim but the games continue to be extremely popular. There are even lottery strategies that claim to increase the chances of winning–though Cohen cautions that such techniques can backfire.

Posted in: Gambling