What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a game of chance where players submit a ticket to a drawing for a prize. The prize is usually money or goods. If the entertainment value of winning outweighs the disutility of losing, the purchase of a lottery ticket makes sense for an individual.

In the ancient Roman Empire, people used lotteries to raise funds for public works projects, including the repairs of the City of Rome and the distribution of fancy items like dinnerware to guests at Saturnalian parties. Lotteries became widely practiced in colonial era America as well. Among other things, they helped fund the Virginia Company of London and were a popular source of income for Harvard and Yale. The prizes were often in the form of merchandise, although enslaved persons could purchase their freedom by participating in lottery drawings.

The modern state lottery began in 1964 with New Hampshire. Its defenders argued that it would allow states to expand their services without especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working classes. This argument has since been discredited, as the lottery’s revenue base shifted away from middle-class taxpayers; taxes on the poor and the middle class rose to pay for wars, pensions, and health care; inflation made the value of money won in a lottery jackpot steadily decline (lotto prizes are paid in annual installments over 20 years, which is when most winners go bankrupt); and, as Cohen shows, an obsession with unimaginable wealth accompanied a steady erosion in financial security for working Americans in the late twentieth century.