What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a form of gambling wherein tokens are distributed or sold and the winners are determined by chance. A lottery may also refer to a system of choosing who gets something, such as jobs, by drawing names from a list or other method. The prize money for a lottery can be anything from cash to goods or even a house. The word lottery has several meanings in English:

The term is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which means fate or luck and the Middle English noun loterie, which refers to a meeting for the drawing of lots. Originally, the term was used to describe a game of chance in which tokens were drawn and then sold for a fixed price to determine the winner. The lottery is one of the oldest forms of gaming, dating back thousands of years.

In the seventeenth century, it was common in Europe to hold public lotteries for a variety of reasons, from building town fortifications to providing charity for the poor. In the American colonies, it was often a way to raise funds for public projects without enraging an antitax electorate. In fact, lottery profits helped finance the construction of churches, roads, canals, and colleges in early America. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were all financed through lotteries, and the Continental Congress held a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War.

The lottery industry relies on big prizes, and the higher the prize amount, the more people want to play. As a result, jackpots often grow to apparently newsworthy levels and are promoted heavily on television and the Internet. But, as Cohen notes, this obsession with unimaginable wealth has coincided with a decline in the economic security of most working Americans. Incomes have stagnated, pensions and social-security benefits have eroded, health-care costs are rising, and the nation’s long-standing promise that hard work and education would make everyone better off than their parents has largely disappeared.

In an effort to revive interest in the lottery, state legislators have ginned up new strategies. Rather than arguing that the lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they began to claim that it could fund a single line item—usually a government service that is popular and nonpartisan, such as education or elder care. This narrower approach has made it easier to campaign for legalization; a vote for the lottery is not a vote for gambling, but a vote for a particular government service.