What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which tickets bearing numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. Prizes may be money or goods. In some states, lottery revenues are used to finance public projects such as roads and schools. Others are used to distribute income-based prizes such as subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. Most states run their own lotteries; others contract the operation of their state-wide lotteries to private corporations. A lottery is not to be confused with a raffle, which is a similar game in which people purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize by chance.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate,” or more precisely, “allotment.” Early in American history, it was common for towns to organize lotteries in order to raise funds for public usages such as bridges and canals, streets and churches, and colleges. The word was also used figuratively, as in the phrase “a lottery in which everyone wins.”

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run state lotteries. The six that don’t—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada—don’t have lotteries because of religious objections; political concerns; the fact that they already get their own gambling revenue; or a lack of what Clotfelter calls “fiscal urgency.”

While lottery officials are steadfast in maintaining that winning is entirely a matter of luck, many players take a much more active role in their own success or failure. They purchase multiple tickets, often in large quantities—thousands at a time, according to a HuffPost Highline article about two Michigan seniors who made $27 million over nine years by using the system they devised. They follow all sorts of quote-unquote systems that are not borne out by statistical reasoning, and they know how to play the odds: The more tickets they buy, the better their chances.

In addition to playing the game, they also spend a great deal of time and effort promoting it, often through television commercials. These commercials tend to emphasize the huge jackpots that can be won and are designed to appeal to people’s fantasies about being rich. As a result, they have become a powerful tool in the campaign to expand the lottery’s offerings and its promotional activities.

Ultimately, though, the vast majority of lottery money is spent on prizes and administrative costs, leaving very little for state governments. Between 1964 and 2019, state lotteries raised a total of $502 billion—an enormous amount by any measure, but, in terms of overall state revenue, just about a drop in the bucket.