What is a Lottery?


A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold for prizes that are awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random. The prize may be money or goods. Lotteries are popular in many countries and are often used to raise funds for public services or to distribute a percentage of government revenue. Some governments outlaw them, while others endorse them and organize state or national lotteries.

In the fourteen-hundreds, the Dutch began holding lotteries to pay for town fortifications and charity. Queen Elizabeth I chartered England’s first state lottery in 1567, using proceeds to “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets cost ten shillings, a hefty sum for the time, and winners were guaranteed immunity from arrest for most crimes.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. The six that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah—choose not to for reasons as diverse as their constituents. Some of these states have religious objections to gambling; others, like Alabama and Utah, already rely on oil revenues to fund government operations; still others, such as Nevada and Alaska, don’t want to compete with Vegas.

While opponents of the lottery argue that its regressive nature obscures the broader economic issues it addresses, defenders point out that lotteries are responsive to economic fluctuations. They cite data showing that ticket sales increase as incomes drop, unemployment rises, and poverty rates grow. They also note that the demographics of the players are more favorable to government interests: They’re disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male.