What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by a process which relies wholly on chance. Unlike gambling, where payment is made in exchange for a real or implied promise of winning, the allocation of prizes by lot is completely free of consideration, except as may be provided by law. The most familiar example of a lottery is the distribution of property in a will, but it may also include military conscription, commercial promotions involving the awarding of goods or services, and the selection of jurors from lists of registered voters. Although there is no single definition of lottery, most states classify them as gambling, and thus subject to the same laws that govern other forms of gambling.

Historically, state lotteries have been promoted as an alternative source of public funds. Rather than raising taxes or cutting public services, the argument goes, state governments can rely on lotteries to provide “painless” revenue for important programs and purposes. State legislators and officials typically cite this value when pushing for the adoption of a lottery, as well as to maintain support for the industry once it is established.

Most states legislate a monopoly for their lotteries; establish a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; and begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Then, with continual pressure for additional revenues, lotteries progressively expand their offerings and introduce new games.

These efforts to generate additional revenue often take the form of ad campaigns that target specific groups. The most controversial of these campaigns are those that specifically promote the lottery to people with low incomes or who have poor education levels. The messages are meant to convey that the lottery is a fun way to spend money, and that the experience of playing can help players feel better about their own economic prospects.

The fact that these messages often have the opposite effect – by reinforcing a sense of hopelessness – is an unfortunate byproduct of the lottery’s popularity. Studies show that lottery play does not correlate with a state’s objective fiscal circumstances, and that the popularity of lotteries is independent of whether their proceeds are used for education or some other important purpose.

Nevertheless, there are some clear trends in lottery participation by socio-economic group. For instance, men tend to play more frequently than women, and African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to participate than whites. Moreover, lottery play decreases with age, and the young are less likely to play than those in middle age or older. These demographic differences suggest that the lottery is a form of “social engineering” that does not always produce the desired results. While these facts do not necessarily discredit the concept of the lottery, they suggest that there is a need for greater scrutiny of the role it plays in society. To that end, it is important to understand the underlying dynamics that drive lottery policies. A more critical perspective can help identify the ways in which these policies can be improved.