What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a type of gambling that involves drawing numbers and then allowing winners to claim prizes. It can be used for a variety of reasons, including to give away subsidized housing units, kindergarten placements or even baseball tickets. Lotteries have been around for centuries. The first known example occurred in the Netherlands in the 15th century, when towns held raffles to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor.

The modern lottery, Cohen writes, began in the 1960s when state governments, saddled with a growing population and increasingly generous social safety net, found it hard to balance their budgets without hiking taxes or cutting services—options that would have been politically toxic to voters. Lotteries seemed to offer an easy solution: they were a way for states to generate revenues that appeared to appear out of thin air, without having to ask voters to pay more.

Although many people buy lottery tickets on the basis of irrational superstitions—like buying certain types of tickets at specific stores or playing them at a particular time of day—most go in with their eyes open, knowing that the odds are long and that they’re likely to lose. Still, they have a nagging feeling that somehow, somewhere, their lucky numbers will show up.

The problem is that lottery advertising reinforces the irrational beliefs of these players, by touting jackpot amounts (which are paid out in annual installments over 20 years, and thus quickly erode) and by inflating the overall value of winnings, which will be drained by taxes.