a gambling game or method of raising money, especially for public charitable purposes, in which tickets are sold and prizes are awarded by chance. also called lotto, keno, sweepstake, and raffle.
The casting of lots for the distribution of property, slaves, and other goods has a long history in human civilization (there are even biblical examples). In modern times, state lotteries, in which tickets are purchased for the opportunity to win a prize by random selection of numbers, have become one of the world’s most popular recreational activities.
Lottery supporters argue that it is a useful source of revenue without the imposition of onerous taxes on the working classes. This argument is not without merit; indeed, in the immediate post-World War II period, state governments were able to expand their programs considerably without imposing heavy burdens on the poor.
But this arrangement was not a permanent one, and as inflation accelerated and the costs of government grew, the need to raise additional revenue became pressing. State officials began to look at the lottery as a way to collect new revenues that could be spent on a wide range of projects.
In addition, the steady growth of lotteries was encouraging politicians to consider them as a substitute for tax increases or cuts in other government programs. This is a dangerous dynamic that, in the long run, will almost certainly lead to the demise of this unique revenue source.
Lotteries have a number of serious flaws, the most obvious being that they tend to skew heavily toward low-income people. As the percentage of players from this group increased, so too did their share of the prizes, and thus of state revenues. This disproportionate impact on lower-income neighborhoods has made lotteries a controversial source of public funding.
Nevertheless, lotteries remain popular in many states and have played a major role in financing such projects as the British Museum, bridge repairs, and universities. Moreover, in colonial-era America, Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise funds for a battery of guns to defend Philadelphia from the British, and Thomas Jefferson held a lottery to try to pay his debts. Lotteries are classic examples of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall oversight. As a result, few, if any, states have a coherent gambling or lottery policy. This makes it difficult to assess their effects on the public. Nonetheless, the problems outlined in this article should be of concern to all policymakers. They should seek to understand the dynamics of lotteries and how they can be made more equitable and responsible for all members of society. They should also avoid the temptation to rely on this type of revenue source, which has proved to be unreliable.