The Evolution of the Lottery


Lottery is a scheme for raising money by selling chances to share in a distribution of prizes by chance among persons purchasing tickets. It involves the drawing of numbered slips or lots, representing prizes or blanks, on a day announced in connection with the scheme of intended prizes; it is often a form of voluntary taxation.

The practice of distributing property by lottery is traceable to ancient times. The Bible mentions Moses being instructed to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot; the Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by lot as part of Saturnalian feasts. In Europe, the first state-sponsored lotteries in the modern sense of the word appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders with towns attempting to raise money for fortifying defenses or building public works, and in the English colonies where they were popular in the 17th century as mechanisms for obtaining “voluntary taxes.” Privately organized lotteries were also common. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson held a private lottery in Virginia.

In the United States, state-run lotteries are well established. They operate as a monopoly, select and license retailers, train their employees to use lottery terminals and sell tickets, redeem winning tickets, collect and report sales and revenues, select and train staff to promote the game and conduct ad campaigns, pay high-tier prizes, administer tax exemptions, and ensure that retailers and players comply with state laws and regulations.

The majority of participants in state lotteries are from middle-income neighborhoods. However, many critics of the lottery point out that its regressive impact on lower-income communities is substantial. They also claim that much lottery advertising is deceptive, often presenting misleading information about odds of winning, inflating the value of winnings (lotto jackpots are generally paid out in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the current value).

While the initial policy decisions made when a lottery is established are important, the ongoing evolution of its operations is critical. Many state lotteries are characterized by fragmented decision-making processes that give limited consideration to issues such as compulsive gambling and its regressive effect on low-income groups.

A lottery is a classic example of an institution that develops extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators; suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by supplier corporations are often reported); teachers (in those states where the majority of lotteries’ revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue). Those involved in running a lottery must manage the complex balancing act between these interests, while keeping the public interest in mind. In the end, this is a task that requires expert knowledge and judgment. It is not easy, but it can be done. The key is to understand the game and implement proven lottery strategies that will give you a better chance of success.