How the Lottery Works

A lottery is a way to make money by taking chances, and Americans spend billions each year on tickets. But despite this popularity, there are real questions about how well state lotteries work. Some of these concern the impact of gambling on compulsive gamblers and lower-income people, as well as whether this is an appropriate function for government. Others reflect the fact that lotteries are business enterprises, and their profits depend on generating excitement and demand. Whether or not you like to play, it’s worth knowing how these businesses work and how they can be changed.

Since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, almost all have followed similar paths: they create a monopoly for themselves; establish a public corporation to run it (rather than contracting out the job to private firms); begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, as the revenues increase and pressure for additional games grows, expand wildly and quickly, both in size and complexity. The result is a huge industry, one that stretches from convenience stores, where the vast majority of sales occur, to teachers and state legislators (lottery suppliers contribute heavily to political campaigns), and the general public at large.

The lottery’s origins go back to ancient times. It is attested to in the Bible, and Roman Emperor Nero had a favorite game. But it only became a widespread practice in Europe in the fourteen-hundreds, when the Low Countries used it to finance town fortifications and charity for the poor. It then caught on in England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first, with the prize to be “repairs and strength of the realm.” Tickets cost ten shillings.

By the 1800s, lotteries were a popular feature of life in America, and, as historian James Matheson puts it, “the moral sensibilities that would later turn against prohibition had begun to harden against the practice.” They had become entangled with slavery—George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery with prizes that included human beings, and an enslaved man named Denmark Vesey won the South Carolina lottery and used his winnings to buy his freedom and foment a slave rebellion.

By the late twentieth century, however, public attitudes toward gambling began to soften, and a “tax revolt” was underway, which reduced state reliance on the lottery as a source of revenue. Lottery advocates responded by reducing the emphasis on its popularity and focusing more on the fact that it helped fund services like education, elder care, and public parks. These moves made it easier to sell legalization. In this article, we will explore three important things to know about lottery. Then we will look at what we should do about it. Finally, we will discuss three ways to reform the lottery in order to make it fairer to all. By the end, you will be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to support the lottery. Thank you for reading.