What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a form of gambling wherein numbers are drawn to determine the winner. Although casting lots to make decisions and to determine fates has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), lotteries for material gain are relatively recent. The first recorded public lottery to distribute prize money was held in 1466 at Bruges, in what is now Belgium, for the announced purpose of helping the poor.

Lotteries have become a common source of state revenues. While many states promote them as a way of raising funds for public purposes, critics argue that they are a form of taxation, especially regressive taxes that fall disproportionately on low-income people. Others argue that the games are addictive and should be banned. Yet others claim that the state’s involvement in the business undermines the autonomy of private operators.

In the United States, the lottery is regulated by federal law and state laws. It is a popular way to raise funds for public projects and programs, such as education, transportation, and health care. It is also a means to reduce income inequality by distributing money to the poor and needy. In addition, the lottery is an important source of revenue for local governments. In fiscal year 2006, Americans wagered $57.4 billion in the national lottery.

The origin of the word “lottery” is not certain, but it may be related to the Dutch word lot, meaning “fate,” or to the root words for fate and chance. It is also possible that it is a calque of Middle French loterie, which refers to the action of drawing lots. In any event, the modern lottery is a classic example of how public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, with no overall vision or overview.

When a lottery is established, the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; and begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. A percentage of the pool goes as costs and profits, while the remainder is available for prizes. A key decision is whether to balance a few large prizes with a high frequency of smaller ones, or a higher number of small prizes with a lower frequency of winnings.

The state’s initial argument for a lottery is that it is a painless source of revenue, with players voluntarily spending their own money for the benefit of the community. As a result, politicians often look on lotteries as an attractive alternative to more direct forms of taxation. Lotteries have been used to fund public works projects, such as paving streets, building wharves, and even building Harvard and Yale. They were also a significant funding source during the colonial era, with George Washington sponsoring one in 1768 to finance road construction. They also financed the establishment of public libraries and churches, and supported the colonial militia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people supported wartime efforts through the lottery.