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What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random for the purpose of awarding prizes. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse and regulate it. Although making decisions and determining fates by drawing lots has a long record in human history (including multiple instances in the Bible), lotteries as means for material gain are of more recent origin.

Initially, the popularity of lotteries stemmed from their role in funding public projects. Lottery proceeds provided money for roads, libraries, canals, churches, colleges, etc., in the colonial era, as well as for military ventures during the American Revolution and French and Indian Wars.

Today, state lotteries are enormously popular and generate significant revenues for governments. This has led to a dependency of government at all levels on this “painless” source of revenue. As a result, pressures to increase lottery revenues are constant and can be hard for state officials to resist.

The evolution of state lotteries is a classic example of policy making by piecemeal increments with little overall overview and limited attention to the public interest. In the early days of state lotteries, the main argument for their adoption was that they would be self-sustaining and provide a “painless” source of revenue from people who spend voluntarily what they otherwise might have been taxed.

However, lottery revenues soon began to erode. State legislatures, for example, began to be influenced by the demands of convenience store operators; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to political campaigns are routinely reported); teachers (who are frequently given a share of the revenue earmarked for education), and so on.