What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game of chance in which players select numbers from a range. The prize is usually money or goods. There are many different types of lotteries, including games that require a minimum number of selections (such as six from one to fifty-nine) and games in which all the numbers must be correct. In the latter case, the odds of winning are extremely low. Lottery is a popular pastime and, according to some estimates, 50 percent of Americans buy tickets at least once a year. The players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. Despite the high prizes, these players can expect to lose as much as they win.

While defenders of the lottery claim that its ubiquity is due to the fact that people don’t understand how unlikely it is to win, this explanation is flawed. The truth is that, as with all commercial products, the lottery’s appeal is largely responsive to economic fluctuation. As Cohen points out, “Lottery sales increase as incomes fall and unemployment rise.” It is also true that lottery spending varies by neighborhood—it is most heavily promoted in poorer, Black, or Latino neighborhoods.

The history of lotteries goes back centuries. The Bible has the Lord instructing Moses to take a census of the Israelites and divide their land by lot, and Roman emperors used them as an entertainment at Saturnalian feasts and to give away property and slaves. In the American colonies, private lotteries were common as a way to raise money for products or properties. Public lotteries, on the other hand, became increasingly popular during times of financial stress.

These state-sponsored lotteries were billed as a way for politicians to maintain existing services without raising taxes and risking a backlash at the polls. For example, in the late nineteen-twenties, when states faced budget shortfalls, some governors and state legislators pushed for the adoption of lotteries. But the underlying logic was more ideological: Lotteries are a convenient scapegoat for ordinary people’s deep, inarticulate dissatisfaction with the social order.

In the end, it is not surprising that governments adopt lotteries when they are struggling financially. The reason is not that people have a greater desire to win the big prizes but that, as with all forms of gambling, lottery play is highly addictive. Lottery proponents argue that a percentage of the proceeds will go to public goods, such as education, and this argument is effective in generating broad public support for the program. But as Clotfelter and Cook point out, the objective fiscal condition of the state does not seem to affect whether or when a lottery is adopted.