What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which bettors pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a large one. The money bet is gathered into a pool from which prizes are awarded by drawing numbers. Lotteries have been criticized as addictive forms of gambling, but they can raise funds for public projects and reduce taxes.

The earliest evidence of lottery-like games dates to keno slips from the Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. The casting of lots to decide matters of fate and material wealth has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. Lotteries grew to prominence in colonial-era America, when they helped fund buildings at Harvard and Yale, and George Washington sponsored a lottery to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. The six that don’t are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada—all of which already allow gambling and have a state government that gets its own cut of lottery revenues.

According to Cohen, the modern incarnation of the lottery emerged in the nineteen-sixties as voters’ desire for more state spending collided with a budget crisis. With rising populations, inflation, and the cost of war weighing on state coffers, it became increasingly difficult for governments to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services. That’s when the lottery became a popular way to bring in “painless” revenue. By allowing the state to spend less on other things while still funding its social safety net, it could attract voters who would otherwise oppose tax increases.