How Popular is the Lottery?


Lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for prizes, such as cash, cars, houses, or other merchandise. The practice of making decisions and determining fates by lottery is ancient (a few examples appear in the Bible), but modern lotteries have only recently become popular.

State governments, which run the majority of lotteries in the United States, claim that proceeds from games benefit a broad public good. This argument is often effective in winning and retaining public approval, particularly when state governments face difficult fiscal conditions. But research shows that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state have little bearing on whether people support a lottery or not.

The popularity of a lottery depends on several factors, including the size of the prize, how it is awarded, and the odds of winning. Many states offer a lump-sum award or an annuity, which pays the winner in installments over six months to a year, depending on the state. The top prize is typically called the jackpot. If the jackpot is not won, it rolls over to the next drawing and the prize grows even more. Super-sized jackpots attract media attention and drive sales, but they also create a false sense of the odds of winning.

Lotteries have a long history, and have been used to finance everything from the building of the British Museum to repairing bridges in American cities, as well as to give away slaves and property to the Roman emperors. In the 17th century, lotteries accounted for about one-third of the money raised by public subscription for projects like the construction of the British Museum and the repair of Boston’s Faneuil Hall.