What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a scheme for distributing prizes by chance, in which tickets bearing particular numbers are drawn to win the prize. The first recorded lottery was held during the Roman Empire for city repairs, and the earliest modern lotteries were a popular form of entertainment at dinner parties. The term is also used figuratively to refer to any chance allotment or distribution.

Lottery advertising necessarily focuses on persuading targeted groups to spend their money on the lottery. It often includes claims of specific benefits, such as the money that is earmarked for education, but these claims are illusory: the lottery proceeds merely reduce the amount that would have been allotted to the program from the state general fund; and even in states that claim to use lottery revenues only for a single purpose, the overall funding remains unchanged.

The ubiquity of state lotteries shows how public policy often evolves in piecemeal fashion, with decisions made largely by specialized interest groups. In the case of lotteries, they tend to attract broad constituencies — convenience stores (the primary vendors); lottery suppliers and their lobbyists (heavy contributions are routinely reported by political analysts); state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to a new source of revenue); and lottery players themselves.

As with other forms of gambling, lottery participation is irrational. But it is important to understand that the irrationality is not just an emotional response to bad odds, but a rational reaction to a perceived opportunity.