Lottery Basics


The practice of making decisions and determining fates by lot dates back centuries, with several examples in the Bible. Lotteries are also a common way for governments to fund public projects. Lotteries have become very popular in the United States, where they are now the source of many state government revenues and a target for criticism over their social costs. While lottery critics often focus on alleged problems of compulsive gambling and the regressive impact on lower-income groups, these issues both reflect and are driven by the continuing evolution of the industry.

Lottery operators seek to maximize profits by making the top prizes appear astronomically large and by expanding the number of available games. In addition, the hefty jackpots generate significant free publicity on news sites and TV broadcasts, which drives ticket sales and interest in the game. The result is a cycle of higher jackpots, increased competition for winning the top prize, and more expansion of the games.

In a typical lottery, players purchase tickets for a series of numbers, which are drawn in a random fashion to produce the winner. While there are some variations, most lotteries require players to choose six to eight numbers from a list of dozens or even hundreds of possibilities. Those who choose a winning combination can expect to take home anywhere from a small cash prize to a multimillion-dollar lump sum.

Choosing your numbers: Whether you prefer to pick birthdays, ages, or random sequences such as 1-2-3-4-5-6, it is important to buy enough tickets to cover all possible combinations. You also want to avoid picking numbers that other people are also playing, which increases the chance that you will share the prize with them, said Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman. Instead, he recommends using Quick Picks or selecting numbers that have been assigned to significant dates such as wedding anniversaries.

Lotteries have a long history in colonial America, where they were used for both private and public ventures. In fact, the Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to raise money for the American Revolution in 1776. During the 18th century, lotteries helped finance roads, canals, churches, colleges, libraries, and other public works projects. They also raised funds for the founding of Yale and Harvard universities, as well as Columbia and Princeton.

While the success of a lottery depends on its ability to convince voters that it is serving a “public good,” Clotfelter and Cook find that state governments’ objective fiscal conditions do not play much of a role in deciding whether or when to adopt a lottery. Indeed, states that are in financial stress generally introduce a lottery more quickly than those with solid budgets. This suggests that state officials do not have a single, coherent public policy on the topic and instead make decisions about the lottery piecemeal and incrementally.