A lottery is a game wherein prizes are assigned to individuals or groups through a process that relies wholly on chance. A lottery can be used to select candidates for a position, fill vacancies in a sports team among equally competing players, or place children in schools or universities. It can also be used to assign numbers on an electric power grid or other public utilities. Lotteries are common in many cultures, and they contribute billions of dollars to the global economy each year. In the United States, about 50 million people play the lottery every week. However, the odds of winning are very low. Lotteries are a popular way for government officials to raise money and distribute benefits without raising taxes.
The roots of lotteries go back to ancient times. The casting of lots is recorded in the Bible, and Romans often celebrated Saturnalias with special lotteries in which guests drew tickets to win extravagant prizes. Later, lotteries were employed to settle disputes, to determine the fate of prisoners, and for a variety of other purposes. By the nineteen-seventies, lottery fever was sweeping the nation, and the dream of unimaginable wealth became the defining fantasy for millions of Americans. This obsession with the lottery coincided with a decline in financial security for working families. Income gaps widened, pensions and job security declined, health-care costs rose, and the long-held national promise that hard work would pay off was fading fast.
Advocates of state-sponsored lotteries seized on this new reality to promote their cause. They no longer argued that a lottery could float an entire state budget; instead, they promised that it would cover a specific line item, invariably a government service that was popular and nonpartisan (education, aid for veterans, or public parks). This strategy was politically appealing. It allowed proponents to argue that a vote for legalization was not a vote for gambling but for a social good.
To keep jackpots growing to ever-larger amounts, lottery organizers made the prize structure more complex. Besides the large prize, they offered a series of smaller prizes that would be allocated to winners. A percentage of the pool was deducted as administrative and promotional expenses, and some of it was transferred to the prize fund as profit for the lottery organization. The rest was available for the prize winners. To increase ticket sales, the odds were lowered to make it more difficult for winners to win the top prize. This strategy proved counterintuitive: As the odds got worse, the number of people who played the lottery grew.