The Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling where the prizes are determined by chance. The practice dates back to ancient times. The Old Testament has a story in which the Lord instructed Moses to divide land among the people by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries as a popular entertainment at Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries were especially popular during the 17th century, when they raised money for a range of public purposes, from town fortifications to helping the poor.

The modern era of state-run lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964, and has since spread to all 50 states. They all operate similarly: the state establishes a monopoly; hires a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing private firms for a cut of the proceeds); starts operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, because revenue growth usually slows or even plateaus, tries to entice the public to buy more tickets by adding new games.

One major message that lotteries rely on is the idea that playing their games is a good thing because it helps support the state or local government. This is an important part of the argument that makes state lotteries so attractive in a time of fiscal stress. But it is also a false and misleading message.

The truth is that state-run lotteries are largely run as a business, and that means that their goal is to maximize profits. The question is, can they do so without causing negative effects on the poor and problem gamblers?