A lottery is a game in which people pay a small amount of money (typically $1) to have a chance at winning a much larger sum. Participants may purchase tickets in groups or individually. Then a random drawing determines winners and the prizes. In the United States, state governments run lotteries as monopolies, and proceeds are used for government programs. As of August 2004, there were 40 operating lotteries, covering 90% of the country’s population.
The lottery’s popularity owes in large part to its perceived benefits to society. Its proponents argue that, in a time of economic stress, lotteries offer an alternative to tax increases and cutbacks on public services. State officials and legislators, who must approve the lotteries’ operations, also argue that lotteries are an effective way to expand a state’s social safety net, if done properly.
But a lottery’s true value is less clear-cut than its advocates claim. For one thing, it has a powerful incentive to promote gambling, even to the extent that it may lead to problem gamblers or other problems of public policy. And because it is run as a business, the lottery has to promote itself in ways that are at cross-purposes with its stated public goals.
The concept of drawing lots to distribute property dates back to ancient times. The Old Testament instructed Moses to divide land among the Israelites by lot; and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves in lottery-like draws during Saturnalian feasts. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British.
In the modern era, the first state to introduce a lottery was New Hampshire in 1964, followed by New York and 10 other states by 1970. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. The popularity of the lottery is widespread; about 60% of adults report playing a state lottery at least once in a year. In addition, lotteries build broad support within specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (who usually sell the tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers in those states where the proceeds are earmarked for education; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue from lotteries.
In the past, state legislators adopted lotteries with a great deal of enthusiasm, especially those in states with relatively large social safety nets. In the immediate post-World War II period, legislators in Northeastern states were especially eager to take advantage of a potential source of revenue without raising taxes. And indeed, studies have shown that the relative popularity of a lottery is not connected to a state’s actual fiscal situation: Lotteries have been successful in states with and without healthy budgets.