What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a gambling game in which participants pay a small amount of money — usually a percentage of the ticket price or a flat sum — for a chance to win a large prize. The casting of lots to decide fates and allocate goods or privileges has a long history, and state-sponsored lotteries began in Europe in the first half of the 15th century. The term lottery is derived from the Latin loteria, meaning “fate drawn by lots.”

A major element of all lotteries is the drawing, a procedure for selecting winners. Tickets are thoroughly mixed by mechanical means (such as shaking or tossing) and then randomly selected using some method, often involving a series of mechanical spinners. Computers are increasingly being used to do this, since they can store and randomize large numbers of tickets. The selection process ensures that winning tickets are chosen by pure chance, rather than being biased toward the most active or wealthy patrons.

State lotteries are highly popular and generate substantial revenues. In most states, more than 60% of adults report playing at least once a year.1 In a few cases, the proceeds of a lotteries are earmarked for specific public purposes.2 However, even when lotteries are not earmarked for public purpose, the public seems to be broadly supportive of them.

While a number of different theories have been offered to explain the popularity of lotteries, it is clear that they appeal to the public’s desire to acquire wealth in a relatively low-risk and cost manner. In addition, state governments are able to market them as an alternative to higher taxes or cuts in public services, and this is often a powerful argument.

The fact that state lotteries are often run like businesses, with the primary goal of maximizing revenue, also raises questions about their ethical implications. If the promotion of gambling results in adverse effects for the poor, problem gamblers, and the rest of the population, should a government-sponsored business be allowed to profit from these activities?

In spite of the controversial aspects of this issue, most states continue to adopt lotteries. In many cases, debates about lottery adoption have focused on the relative merits of a particular proposal and on the state government’s financial circumstances, but once a lottery is established, its advocates tend to focus almost exclusively on raising revenue. This process often leads to the gradual evolution of a lottery system with little or no overall planning and oversight. In the end, few states have a coherent gaming policy, and public officials inherit policies and revenues that they cannot easily control or influence.