What is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement of prizes by lot (a random selection), especially in which consideration must be paid and a winning token or ticket must match a specific combination of numbers.

Although casting lots to determine ownership and other rights has a long record, the drawing of lots for material gain is much more recent. In the seventeenth century, it became popular in Europe, and a variety of public organizations began running them to raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. The practice came to America in 1612, with King James I of England establishing one in Virginia for the settlement of Jamestown.

Today, state-run lotteries are large businesses with a highly focused agenda of increasing revenues. They advertise heavily, enticing people to spend a little and hope for a big prize. The operations are largely self-serving, and many critics argue that they run at cross-purposes with the larger public interest. For example, they promote gambling but fail to address its negative effects on the poor and problem gamblers.

A lottery may be a form of entertainment or a way to make money, but its popularity reflects a deeper hunger for unimaginable wealth. As Cohen points out, this obsession with the lottery coincided with a decline in economic security for the masses that began in the nineteen-sixties, as income disparities widened and social-security benefits were cut. This decline continued through the nineteen-eighties and beyond as the cost of health care and inflation rose, and as America’s belief in the promise that hard work and education would lead to financial security waned.