What is a Lottery?




A system for the distribution of prizes or rewards by chance, especially a state-sponsored game offering cash and goods in exchange for tickets.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when America was building its new nation, government needed money quickly to build everything from roads to jails to schools. Lotteries were an obvious solution, providing the necessary funds with a minimal financial impact on taxpayers. In fact, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “everybody… is willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.” Thomas Jefferson held lotteries to retire his debts, and Benjamin Franklin used them to buy cannons for Philadelphia.

While many people argue that lottery play is just a form of harmless gambling, the truth is much more complicated. State-sponsored lotteries are a powerful way for governments to skirt taxes while offering the hope of instant riches. And it’s no surprise that people respond to this siren song—after all, everyone needs to eat.

People also play the lottery because they want to believe in the meritocratic promise of making it big, no matter their starting point. And while some players may be aware that the odds are long, most don’t care because they feel like somebody, somewhere, is going to win. So when you see that billboard advertising the latest record-breaking jackpot, think twice about buying a ticket—or at least do your research first.