How the Lottery Works


As state governments struggle to balance budgets and keep their social safety net intact, many are turning to the lottery to raise funds. The lottery’s defenders argue that it is a fun, voluntary way to boost government coffers without raising taxes or cutting programs. Critics, meanwhile, point to the potential for compulsive gambling, as well as to the alleged regressive impact on lower-income communities.

The lottery’s story begins in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where local towns held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. The prize – in the form of food or goods, or even a slave – was drawn at random from among the tickets sold.

But the lottery quickly became a major source of state revenue, helping finance the European settlement of America. Lotteries spread throughout the American colonies despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling and dice.

Today, states are still trying to figure out how to use the lottery to their advantage. Some, like New Hampshire, are pushing to make the games more lucrative by boosting their jackpots. The bigger the prize, the more publicity they get – and the more people buy tickets. The resulting jackpots often grow to unimaginable amounts, causing the odds of winning to drop.

But as this story shows, the real power of the lottery is in how it is organized. The lottery’s prizes are determined by chance, but the process of allocating them depends on a complicated arrangement that relies not just on luck but also on all sorts of arcane, mystical, numerological, birthday, and favourite number-based methods.