What is a Lottery?

1. A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and the winners determined by lot. 2. A selection made by lot from among applicants or competitors: A job applicant was chosen by lottery.

Lottery has long been a popular way for states to raise revenue without onerous tax increases or cuts in social programs. The early American colonies held frequent lotteries to sell land and other goods, with proceeds going to such public projects as paving streets, constructing wharves, and building colleges, including Harvard and Yale. George Washington even sponsored a lottery in 1768 to finance his road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Most state lotteries start with a small number of fairly simple games and quickly expand to new ones as revenues grow. This expansion reflects both the fact that people become bored with existing games and the desire to attract additional players, particularly those from lower-income groups. These efforts often produce two important problems: (1) the promotion of a form of gambling that may have negative consequences for poor people and compulsive gamblers; and (2) the tendency to run a lottery as a business, with a focus on maximizing revenues, rather than as a public service.

While it is tempting to attribute these problems to regressivity and a lack of concern for the poor, studies have shown that the overall fiscal condition of a state does not seem to be a significant factor in its decision to hold a lottery. Instead, it appears that the overwhelming popularity of lotteries is related to their symbolism as a “fair game,” where the odds of winning are proportionally much higher than they would be in an ordinary competitive game.