How the Lottery Works


The casting of lots to decide matters of material concern has a long history. Lotteries have been used in a number of ways: to make decisions and determine fates (the casting of lots for the best available wives is recorded in the Bible); to raise money for public works projects such as bridges, canals, roads, and libraries; to reward soldiers; and to distribute charity funds to poor people.

Since the late 17th century, lottery games have been a regular feature in most states. They are a classic example of a form of gambling that appeals to a broad segment of the public, despite the fact that playing lotteries is a gamble and often carries a significant risk of losing money.

State lotteries begin with a legal basis for their operation; establish an agency or public corporation to run them; usually begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, because of constant pressures for additional revenues, progressively expand the variety of available games. This process is driven by state officials who want to meet their revenue goals without having to raise taxes or cut public spending.

Lottery advertising often makes false claims about how much a player is likely to win; misrepresents the odds of winning the jackpot; inflates the value of the money won (a lotto winner is typically paid the prize in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding its current value); and so on. But it’s important to remember that lottery players have an inextricable, basic impulse to gamble, and this is what keeps the lotteries going.

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