What is a Lottery?



An undertaking in which tokens are sold or distributed and prizes are awarded to holders of numbers drawn at random. It is often sponsored by a state as a means of raising money for public purposes. Also used (rarely): a competition based on chance, in which tickets are purchased and prizes awarded to the winners. Originally, it was an attempt to avoid paying taxes; now it is more commonly a method of allocating scarce resources.

The lottery is a classic example of a piecemeal policy, in which decisions are made at local levels with little or no overall policy perspective. The resulting policies are generally irrational and regressive, but they gain and retain broad support because the general population tends to believe that lottery proceeds are devoted to a specific and worthwhile public good.

Most people who play the lottery do not take it lightly; they spend a significant portion of their incomes on tickets. They follow all sorts of quote-unquote systems that are not based on statistical reasoning, and they search for lucky numbers and stores and times to purchase tickets. Moreover, they know that their odds are long, but they are convinced that it is still worth playing for the hope of winning the big prize.

Almost all states have now established lotteries. When the lottery first emerged, it was a traditional raffle, with people buying tickets for a drawing that would take place at some future date, usually weeks or even months away. But innovations in the 1970s brought major changes to the industry. Revenues initially expanded dramatically, but eventually began to level off. To counter this, new games were introduced, including scratch-off tickets and “instant” games.