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What is the Lottery?


A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. Also called lotto, the lottery.

Many people play the lottery, contributing billions of dollars annually to state coffers. The odds of winning are slim, but the prizes can be large enough to improve the lives of those who win. But the lottery can become addictive, and some players end up worse off than they were before they won.

The first recorded lottery offering tickets with prizes in the form of cash appears in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where towns raised funds for town fortifications and for helping the poor. Other, earlier, forms of lottery involved giving away articles of unequal value to all ticket holders at dinner parties or as amusements during Saturnalian revelries.

In modern times, state governments have used the lottery as a way to expand their social safety nets without imposing especially onerous taxes on middle-class and working-class taxpayers. This arrangement was possible in the immediate post-World War II period, but it has now reached its limits. And as the baby boomers retire and begin collecting their Social Security checks, states will have to find new ways to fund their services.

Historically, states have funded their public services through a combination of voluntary taxes and user fees. In the United States, the latter include sales and excise taxes as well as property and income taxes. And some states have a third source: lotteries, where the proceeds of a random drawing are used to pay for government projects and programs.

But the regressive nature of the lottery has become more apparent. About 50 percent of American adults buy a lottery ticket each year, and these buyers are disproportionately lower-income and less educated. This is because the winners are mainly the richest players.

As the jackpot grows, more and more tickets are bought, which swells the percentage of available winnings that go to the top 20 or 30 percent of players. This skews the odds of winning and distorts the distribution of prize amounts.

The word lottery comes from Old English hlot, the name for an object that determined someone’s share of land or property (anything from dice to a chip of wood with a name written on it). It was placed in a receptacle, such as a hat or helmet, and shaken. The person whose name or mark was on the object that fell out first became the winner. Hence the phrase to cast your lot with another (1530s, biblical), and later to draw lots.

Today we use lottery to mean any random selection of individuals or things, and even events regarded as having an outcome dependent on chance: ‘They considered combat duty to be something of a lottery’. Copyright 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.