The Lottery and Its Many Facets

Lottery is one of the oldest and most widespread forms of gambling. Public lotteries are widespread throughout history, originating in the Low Countries around the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications, and later helping to finance projects such as paving streets and building college buildings (in fact George Washington sponsored a lottery to help pay for the Continental Congress). Privately organized lotteries were even more common, used by many manufacturers and landowners to sell products or properties for higher prices than they could otherwise get with a regular sale.

While the public generally approves of lotteries, they are far from infallible and state officials must continually grapple with a variety of problems related to their operations. A key problem is the regressive impact on lower-income groups. But there are also other problems, such as the problem of compulsive gambling and the difficulty of establishing a single definition of “lottery.”

State lotteries often develop a specific constituency, including convenience store operators (who sell the tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by these companies are regularly reported); teachers in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and state legislators, who become accustomed to a steady stream of additional revenue that they would not have received otherwise. In addition, the general public has a strong desire to gamble, and lotteries are designed to make it easy for people to do so. While the odds of winning are long, the chance of getting a big jackpot can be quite high, and many people play for the dream of instant riches.