What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a game in which numbers or symbols are drawn and players win prizes, usually money. It is also a common means of allocating limited resources, such as units in a subsidized housing development or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school.

The practice of drawing lots for property or other items dates back to ancient times; the Old Testament instructs Moses to divide the land by lot, and Nero, the Roman emperor, used lotteries to distribute goods such as slaves. In modern times, the lottery has become a popular source of “painless” revenue for states, and politicians often promote it as a way to raise money without raising taxes or expanding government services.

State lotteries operate along similar lines: the legislature legislates a monopoly for themselves; they create a public agency or company to run the lottery (rather than licensing private firms in return for a cut of the proceeds); they start out with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure to generate more revenues, progressively expand their offerings. These expansions usually occur in response to pressure from the general public, which grows more eager to play when jackpots grow larger; and from lottery suppliers, who benefit from the resulting increase in ticket sales and contribute heavily to state political campaigns.

While lottery critics focus on the alleged regressive effect of the tax (lottery proceeds are paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the value of the prize); the fact is that state lotteries have proven remarkably popular. Since New Hampshire introduced the first state lottery in 1964, almost every state has followed suit.

This is largely because, as the writer Shirley Jackson suggests in her short story “The Lottery,” there is a certain inextricable human urge to gamble. People want to believe that they have the potential to become rich, and the enormous odds of winning a lottery are a particularly appealing version of this belief.

But there is something else at work here as well. As with other commercial products, lotteries are responsive to economic fluctuations; they grow more popular when incomes drop, unemployment grows, and poverty rates rise, and they thrive in a climate of mass advertising and mass consumption. And, as with most commercial products, their sales are disproportionately high in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and black. In other words, they are a form of social segregation. So, the real issue is not just that people like to gamble; it’s that they do so in a way that systematically increases inequality and decreases social mobility. And that’s a very bad thing. We all deserve better than that.