What is the Lottery?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which a large number of people are selected at random to win money or other prizes. It is often held by states to raise revenue for various public purposes, but the lottery has been widely criticized as a major regressive tax on lower-income people, as a source of addiction and gambling behavior, and as a vehicle for other abuses.

A state lottery may have a number of different games, but all of them have three basic elements: the selection of numbers or symbols from a pool; the drawing of winning tickets, which determines the winners; and the pooling and distributing of proceeds among the players. In addition to these core elements, each lottery must follow a set of rules designed to maximize its revenues and profits.

Historically, most state lotteries have followed a fairly simple path: the government establishes a lottery monopoly; begins operation with a limited number of relatively simple games; and then expands gradually in size and complexity as the lottery generates additional revenue. Ultimately, however, revenue growth slows down and the lottery may begin to stagnate. In response, the lottery may try to increase its revenues through new games or other means.

One common way that states entice people to play the lottery is to partner with sports franchises and other companies to offer popular products as prizes, usually in the form of scratch tickets. For example, in June 2008 the New Jersey Lottery announced a scratch game in which a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was the top prize.

The other common way that lotteries generate income is to charge a fixed amount for each ticket, or “stake,” purchased. The price per stake may be as little as a dollar or as much as several dollars, depending on the lottery. This practice is called fractional sales and allows the lottery to sell large numbers of tickets at low cost, thus attracting more people to buy tickets than would be possible with higher prices.

Another common feature of most lotteries is the pooling and distributing of funds by sales agents who pass the money paid for tickets through a hierarchy of sales agents, until it is “banked” in a special account for distribution to winning ticket holders. Generally, a proportion of the total revenues goes to the state or sponsor, and the rest is distributed among the winning ticket holders as prize money.

In the United States, lottery sales have been a leading source of extra revenue for state governments since the mid-1960s, with more than $44 billion wagered during fiscal year 2003. The most profitable state lotteries in the nation are New York, California, and New Jersey.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries in Europe were established in Flanders and France in the 1500s. These were organized to help the governments of these countries finance state projects, a strategy that was later adopted in the United States by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.