What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a type of gambling game in which people purchase tickets and then hope to win a prize. The prizes are usually cash or goods. Historically, lotteries have been operated by governments for the purpose of raising money to support public projects. They also serve as a method of collecting taxes. Some governments also run private lotteries for commercial promotions and to give away property such as automobiles, vacations, or even slaves. A few states have banned lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. Modern lotteries are often organized so that a portion of the profits is donated to good causes.

Early America was defined by its aversion to taxation, yet it desperately needed public works, such as bridges, roads, and schools. Lotteries became a popular way to fund such projects, and the Continental Congress attempted to hold a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for the Revolutionary War. The lottery was not successful, but privately-organized lotteries continued to flourish throughout the colonies, and they were a key source of funds for Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia), as well as for supplying cannons for Philadelphia’s defense against the British.

The idea of distributing property by lot dates back centuries, with biblical references to Moses’ instructions on taking a census and dividing the land among the people and Roman emperors using lotteries to distribute slaves. It also appears in medieval Europe, where a popular dinner entertainment was the apophoreta, in which guests would write down their names on pieces of paper and then draw them for a prize at the end of the meal. In the 1700s, America’s lottery industry was born when Congress chartered the first state lotteries to raise money for public projects and charities. The lottery proved to be a popular form of taxation, and many voters and politicians sought to adopt it as a method of raising revenue without increasing taxes or decreasing public services.

Since 1964, when New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries, nearly every other state has followed suit. Each establishes a legal monopoly for itself; hires a public corporation or government agency to manage the lottery or licenses a private firm in return for a percentage of the proceeds; starts with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure to maintain or increase revenues, progressively expands its offerings.

While a few states have withdrawn their lotteries, most view them as an attractive source of painless taxation. They appeal to a broad segment of the public, and they develop extensive specific constituencies—convenience store operators; lottery suppliers, who contribute heavily to political campaigns; teachers, in those states in which lotteries are earmarked for education; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to extra money coming in from the games. A few states have tried to impose minimum-profit guarantees, but these have been met with strong resistance from the industry and the general public. In the short term, however, lottery profits are expected to remain high.