What is a Lottery?
A lottery is a gambling game in which people buy tickets and then numbers are drawn. People who have the winning numbers receive a prize. The term “lottery” also refers to the drawing of lots to determine other things, such as military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by chance, and even the selection of jury members. These kinds of lotteries are not considered true lotteries in the sense that consideration (money, property, or work) is paid for a chance to win.
The first true European lotteries in the modern sense of the word began in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, with towns trying to raise funds to build town fortifications and help the poor. These early public lotteries resembled the ventura of the House of Este, an Italian lottery that awarded money prizes to the winners of a raffle held to distribute gifts to noblemen at their dinner parties.
State lotteries are an enormously popular way to raise revenue. They are incredibly effective, too, generating more than $100 billion in 2021. They may not be the most ethical or equitable way to spend state money, however. Considering the fact that many people will lose money playing these games, there’s reason to question whether it’s worth it.
There are some people who play the lottery for pure fun. These people aren’t trying to get rich; they just want the experience of scratching a ticket. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there are also a large number of people who play the lottery with the hopes of changing their lives for the better, or at least improving their current situation. These people go in with their eyes wide open, aware that the odds are long. They know all the quote-unquote systems about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy, and they’re willing to risk a small part of their income for the potential for a new life.
These lottery participants have two messages that they’re delivering to themselves and others: The first is the idea that if they just played a little bit more, or bought a few more tickets, they’d eventually be rich and successful. The second message is that the state should take advantage of this desire for instant riches and use the lottery to fund programs for the poor.
This article was written by Richard Lustig, a research associate with the National Institute for Economic and Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. The Institute is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation and other private foundations. Its research and reports are independent of any funding source.
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This article is from the January 22, 2002 issue of “Slate” and is reproduced here as part of its open access archive.