What is a Lottery?

What is a Lottery?

The lottery is a game in which people pay to enter a drawing for prizes. Prizes can range from cash to units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a particular public school. The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. But lotteries in which people pay to win material goods are relatively recent. They are popular with the general population and, in some cases, develop extensive specific constituencies that include convenience store operators (the lottery’s usual vendors); suppliers of lotteries’ equipment and services (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers, in states whose revenues are earmarked for them; and state legislators (who quickly grow accustomed to lotto windfalls).

The basic elements of a lottery are surprisingly simple. First, there must be a means of recording the identities of those who stake money and the amounts they stake. Typically, bettors write their names and numbers on a receipt that is deposited with the organizer for subsequent shuffling and selection in a drawing; some percentage of the stakes are used to cover costs of organizing and promoting the lottery, and another percentage goes as taxes or profits for the lottery organization or sponsor. The remainder, if any, is the prize money.

Whether people play for large or small prizes, they are lured by the promise that winning will solve their problems and improve their lives. This is a form of covetousness, which God forbids. The Bible also warns against putting one’s hope in wealth and riches, as wealth can be lost to swindlers and thieves (Exodus 20:17; Proverbs 23:24). Lotteries are just another way for people to express their hopes, desires, and anxieties.

In colonial America, lotteries played a major role in financing both private and public projects. A number of colleges were founded with the proceeds of a lottery, and roads, canals, churches, and libraries were built with the funds raised by many others. But lotteries also were tangled up with the slave trade, sometimes in unpredictable ways. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

In the twentieth century, as taxes became a more sensitive issue, state legislators were drawn to lotteries as a kind of budgetary miracle that allowed them to maintain current services without hiking their taxes. As Cohen points out, “lotteries are essentially an opportunity for politicians to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.” Those who support state lotteries today are a diverse group. They include the general population (as well as smuggling operations that violate international postal prohibitions); convenience store owners and suppliers; suppliers of the machines that administer them; the telecommunications companies that advertise them; and teachers, in states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education. But perhaps the most important supporters are a generation of older lottery players, who are increasingly being replaced by younger ones.