Lottery For Public Purposes

Lottery is a form of gambling whereby numbers are drawn or machines randomly spit out symbols and people win prizes by matching some of the winning combinations. Although the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history, public lotteries are of relatively recent origin; they began in Europe around 1466 and in the United States shortly after the Revolutionary War. Prizes in lotteries have ranged from a fancy dinnerware set to a house or car, and ticket sales have generated vast amounts of revenue for public purposes.

Generally speaking, to qualify as a lottery, the competition must be open to all who pay and rely on chance for prizes, even if later stages require entrants to use skill to advance. Thus, for instance, a lottery for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements is one; so are lotteries for professional sports teams and college scholarships.

State lottery officials face many challenges. For one thing, their policies often involve extensive specific constituencies such as convenience store operators (who supply the tickets); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states where lotteries contribute to education) and so on. In addition, in an antitax era, state governments are likely to become dependent on “painless” lottery revenues and pressures will exist to increase those revenues.

In general, state officials have trouble prioritizing these competing goals. Most have no coherent “gambling policy” and, as the lottery industry evolves, their policies are frequently overcome by its demands.