The Popularity of the Lottery

The lottery is an arrangement in which a prize (usually money) is awarded to one or more persons by a process that relies solely on chance. The word is believed to be derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning ‘fate’ or ‘luck’, and may have been a calque on Middle French loterie, itself a contraction of loterie (literally “action of drawing lots”). Modern lottery arrangements include military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is awarded by random procedure, and the selection of jury members.

State-sponsored lotteries are usually based on the principle that the proceeds benefit a specific public good, typically education. Such arguments are effective at winning and retaining broad popular approval, and the popularity of a lottery does not appear to be sensitive to the actual fiscal conditions of a government or its licensees.

In the past, most state lotteries operated as traditional raffles, with participants purchasing tickets for a drawing to be held at a date in the future. Innovations in the 1970s, however, changed the nature of the lottery industry. New games included instant lotteries, such as scratch-off tickets, that offered lower prizes and much higher odds of winning.

While there is no doubt that these innovations have increased the overall popularity of the lottery, they have also exacerbated existing concerns about the social costs of the activity. Some of these concerns concern the targeting of poorer individuals, the exploitation of problem gamblers, and the proliferation of addictive games.