What is a Lottery?

Info Jun 3, 2024

A competition based on chance, in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are given to the holders of numbers drawn at random; sometimes used as a means of raising money for state or charity. A lottery is usually run by a private corporation, although some are operated by the government.

Lottery advertisements largely focus on promoting the experience of scratching a ticket and on touting big jackpots, but they also send two messages that are important. One is that there are lots of people who like to gamble, and they’re willing to spend a small portion of their incomes on tickets. The other is that the lottery is a great way to get rich.

The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to aid the poor. Those were public lotteries, but there have been private ones too—Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery in the 1780s to help pay for his cannons and Thomas Jefferson tried to raise money to ease his debts with a private lottery in 1826.

The evolution of lottery policies is a classic example of how many states have no comprehensive “gambling policy.” The establishment of a lottery involves a lot of small decisions, and the ongoing operation of a lottery becomes a self-perpetuating machine that requires constant attention to new sources of revenue. State officials inherit a policy—and a dependence on revenue—that they cannot easily change or modify.