What is a Lottery?

A lottery is an arrangement in which a prize, or set of prizes, is awarded to persons who are chosen at random by a process that relies entirely on chance. The word comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning a “fateful stroke of fate.” The oldest known lotteries are keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty, dating from 205 and 187 BC.

The modern lottery resembles an enormous slot machine, with a central computer recording the identities and amounts of money staked by bettors who have purchased tickets. The computer then selects a combination of numbers or symbols for the drawing, which is conducted at an official location. The prizes are often substantial, but there are also many smaller prizes that may be won by any betor who correctly picks the winning combination. The odds of winning are usually very low.

For politicians facing state budget shortfalls, Cohen writes, the lottery became a kind of “budgetary miracle,” allowing them to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues without raising taxes. It was an especially appealing way to fund public works, since early America was “defined politically by a deep aversion to taxation.”

Lottery advocates sometimes cast their efforts as a form of “taxing the stupid,” but this argument misses the point that most players know the odds are very low and they will probably never win. Moreover, the demand for lottery tickets is a reflection of a national obsession with unimaginable wealth that corresponds to a decline in financial security for most working people as income inequality has widened, job-security benefits have eroded, and health-care costs have risen.