A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn and prizes awarded. The term is derived from the Latin loteria, meaning “drawing of lots.” People have been using the casting of lots for centuries to make decisions and determine fates: Moses was instructed to use it to divide land; Roman emperors used it to give away slaves and property; and, in the United States, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin used it to retire debts and buy cannons for Philadelphia. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, state-sponsored lotteries became a staple of American life, raising funds for everything from roads to jails, and from hospitals to schools. Lotteries even financed the building of our new nation.
Aside from the fact that some people just plain old like to gamble, there is another reason why state-sponsored lotteries are popular: they provide a good alternative to paying taxes. The average lottery prize is one dollar, and in most cases the number of tickets sold usually exceeds the amount paid out, so lotteries are profitable enterprises for their sponsoring governments.
In addition to their general appeal, lotteries also develop extensive and very specific constituencies: convenience store operators (whose revenue streams are boosted by the sale of tickets); ticket suppliers (heavy contributions by these firms to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in those states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators who quickly become accustomed to large appropriations from a steady source of state money.
Despite these advantages, critics have been raising concerns about the fairness and integrity of lotteries. They charge that lotteries mislead the public by exaggerating the odds of winning; encourage unwise and risky behavior by luring people to spend more money than they can afford; promote ill-health by encouraging overeating and compulsive gambling; discourage productive work by diverting labor toward lottery playing; and, in some instances, prey on the most vulnerable members of our society.
But supporters of the lottery argue that, in the end, it is a fair and reasonable way to raise money for government projects. They point out that lottery proceeds are not subject to the same taxation as ordinary income and that most people do not play to get rich, but rather to improve their quality of life. They also point out that the lottery helps to reduce illegal gambling and keeps more dollars in the state economy, and they say that the vast majority of lottery players are not problem gamblers.
Nonetheless, a large percentage of lottery players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite and male. In addition, studies have shown that lottery playing tends to decline with age and with educational attainment. While it is easy to dismiss these concerns as the rantings of cranks, the fact remains that Americans spend over $80 billion a year on the lottery. This is a lot of money that could be used to build an emergency fund or pay off credit card debt.