What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random and prizes awarded to those who match them. The word comes from the Dutch verb lot (“fate”) and the Latin literae sacrae (“sacred things”). The first state-run lotteries took place in Europe in the 15th century. They are still common today and are used in military conscription, commercial promotions, and jury selection. Modern lotteries are often described as gambling, but they do not always require payment of a consideration. For example, the Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij uses a form of lottery called a “roof draw” to select jury members, a process that is not considered gambling under strict definitions of the term.

Nevertheless, lotteries are gambling in the most traditional sense of the word: they involve a chance to win something with a small probability, for which people pay an unspecified amount. This contrasts with other forms of gambling, like poker and casino games, in which a person must pay money to participate and the prize money is based on the number of cards or chips a player has in hand. The difference between the two types of gambling is subtle, but significant. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, lotteries were a popular source of revenue in American colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. They were tangled up in the slave trade, sometimes in unpredictable ways: George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and one formerly enslaved man won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

Cohen argues that the modern popularity of lotteries began, in the nineteen-seventies, with growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business and a crisis in state funding. As the income gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and social-security benefits eroded, health-care costs rose, and the national promise that hard work and education would make children better off than their parents waned, it became harder and harder for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were extremely unpopular with voters.

Lotteries provided a convenient way to solve this problem, and states were quick to adopt them. New Hampshire, a state with a notoriously anti-tax reputation, approved the first modern state lottery in 1964; thirteen more followed in as many years, mostly in the Northeast and Rust Belt. Those who approved the lotteries did so with the argument that since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well collect some of the proceeds.

As a result, the players of the modern lottery are disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. This has profound implications for public policy. For example, it means that a lottery with one-in-three million odds will attract more black numbers players than a lottery with one-in-ten-million odds, even though the former has a smaller jackpot and the latter a larger one. Lotteries are thus a major source of inequality, and their advocates have long ignored this fact.