The Popularity of the Lottery

The practice of distributing property or money by lot has a long history. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census and divide land by lottery, and the Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by this means during Saturnalian feasts. In modern times, lotteries have become widely popular with the public. Although some are gambling games, the majority of lotteries offer a chance to win a prize based on random selection. Prizes are usually money or goods, but the term “lottery” also applies to any arrangement in which chance determines allocation of prizes.

The lottery is a great source of revenue for states, and it has a broad appeal as a method of raising funds for public purposes. It is especially attractive to taxpayers in a time of fiscal stress, when state governments must balance budgets and cut spending. In fact, studies show that lottery revenues tend to rise in response to a state’s budget pressures.

A key aspect of lottery popularity is the degree to which it is perceived to benefit a specific public good, such as education. In this way, lotteries are similar to private charities, which also appeal to people’s desire to give to worthy causes.

The enduring popularity of the lottery has been the result of its ability to create extensive and specific constituencies. These include convenience store operators (the lottery’s main vendors); suppliers of lottery-related products (whose heavy contributions to state political campaigns are well documented); teachers (in states that earmark lottery revenues for education); and legislators (who quickly grow accustomed to the additional cash). For most people, however, the biggest incentive is the sliver of hope that they might win.