The Controversy of the Lottery

In a lottery, people pay for a ticket and then have a chance to win prizes if the numbers they select match those randomly spit out by a machine. Lotteries are commonly used for everything from units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a good public school. They also dish out big cash prizes to paying participants. Many state governments have a lottery to raise money for various projects. The controversy surrounding lotteries, though, often centers on issues that are more than just reactions to or drivers of the industry’s continuing evolution, such as the problem of compulsive gambling and its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups.

The casting of lots for decision-making and determining fates has a long history (indeed, it is cited in the Bible). Lotteries came to America from Europe in colonial days and were instrumental in financing construction projects, including paving streets, building wharves and churches. During the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton argued that a lottery was an efficient way to raise funds for the Colonial army.

The name “lottery” may come from the Dutch word lootje, which means ‘fateful occurrence’, or it might be a calque on Middle English loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.” It is likely that both are accurate; the first English-language advertisement using the term appeared in 1569. Lottery revenues have long been earmarked for a specific public purpose, and — as long as the money is not diverted to other purposes — they enjoy broad public support. But studies show that the popularity of lotteries is not a function of a state’s actual fiscal health.