What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a system for the distribution of prizes by chance. Its history dates back to ancient times. The Bible contains dozens of references to God dividing land by lot, and the Roman emperors used it as a way to give away property and slaves. Today’s state-sponsored lotteries draw on a rich heritage of ancient practices to attract players and generate revenues. But many critics charge that the games erode public morality, promote compulsive gambling, and have a regressive impact on low-income communities.

Most state lotteries follow a similar pattern: the government legislates a monopoly for itself or a private corporation; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure for additional revenues, gradually expands into new types of games. Revenues typically increase dramatically during a lottery’s initial phase of operation, then level off and even decline. The resulting “boredom factor” prompts the introduction of new games to maintain or increase revenues.

In addition to traditional numbers and bingo games, some lotteries offer scratch-off tickets, pull tab tickets, keno, and video poker. These innovations can dramatically alter a lottery’s image and appeal. But they also have their own set of problems.

Historically, lottery supporters have won broad public approval by stressing that the proceeds of the games benefit a specific public good, such as education. This argument has become increasingly effective, especially in states facing economic difficulties, because it enables them to avoid a direct discussion of potential tax increases or program cuts. But it has one major problem: it obscures the fact that the lottery is inherently a gamble with taxpayers’ money.

A key aspect of a lottery is its drawing, or procedure for selecting winners. This may take the form of a pool or collection of tickets and their counterfoils from which winning numbers or symbols are extracted by random selection. In most cases, the tickets are thoroughly mixed by some mechanical means (such as shaking or tossing) before they are drawn. This ensures that luck, rather than the skill or judgment of the drawing operator, determines the winners. Computers have increasingly been used to perform the drawing functions of a lottery.

Another element of a lottery is its payback percentage, or the proportion of prize funds returned to players. This percentage varies from lottery to lottery, but is generally in the range of 40 to 60 percent. In recent years, however, the payback percentage has started to decrease, causing a number of problems.

The decline in the payout percentage has also led to a change in the demographic makeup of lottery players. In the past, most lottery players came from middle-class neighborhoods; today, they are more likely to come from low-income areas. This trend has prompted some states to adopt more aggressive advertising strategies, and it is a major source of concern for many critics of the lottery.