What is a Lottery?



A lottery is a scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance. In the United States, most state governments sponsor a lottery or two, and some of them have more than one. The prize pool of a modern lottery usually includes a single large prize along with many smaller ones. Prizes may be cash or goods and services, such as automobiles or vacations. Lotteries were once widely used to finance public works projects, such as the building of the British Museum and the repair of bridges, and also to support private and local government ventures, including supplying the colonial army during the Revolutionary War.

The primary argument in favor of adopting a lottery has always been that it is an efficient and painless way to raise money, because it involves people voluntarily spending their own money for a small chance of great gain rather than the government taking tax dollars from the general population. It is therefore not surprising that in almost every state where a lottery has been introduced, there has been a broad constituency for it — convenience store operators; suppliers of lottery equipment and supplies (who often contribute heavily to the political campaigns of those state legislators who are most supportive of the lottery); teachers, when lotteries are earmarked for education; etc.

Lottery commissions have shifted away from this message and now rely on two messages primarily: that playing the lottery is fun and that buying tickets does a good civic duty, since it raises money for the state. Both of these messages, however, obscure the regressivity of lottery play and the fact that most players are gambling with money they should be using to build emergency funds or pay off credit card debt.