The Lottery

A gambling game in which tickets are sold and prizes are awarded on the basis of chance selections, as in a drawing. Also: any arrangement in which allocations are made by lot or chance, such as a drawing for units in a housing block or kindergarten placements. Also: a situation or enterprise whose outcome depends on chance: ‘Life is a lottery,’ they said.

The most important factor in the lottery’s popularity, studies have found, is its ad campaign: state governments promote it by telling potential bettors that proceeds will help educate students or improve highways. But this argument hardly addresses the underlying issues of state finance, and it seems to have little bearing on the objective fiscal condition of states. Lottery revenues do not seem to be related to the amount of taxes a state collects, nor do they appear to have much impact on the level of public services that it can afford.

People are attracted to the idea that they might become rich, and to the super-sized jackpots that make news and drive ticket sales. The prize amounts can be set at a fixed amount or, as in most state games, a percentage of the total receipts. The prize funds must be matched by the costs of organizing and promoting the lotteries, and some portion is normally allocated to revenues and profits for the organizer.

Some studies show that the bulk of lottery participants and revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods, while lower-income residents participate at disproportionately smaller levels. This raises the question of whether running a lottery is in a state’s best interest.