What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game whereby numbers or symbols are drawn to determine winners. The winnings may be cash or goods, services, or even land. The lottery is a popular way to raise money for public or private projects, and has been in existence since ancient times. It is considered gambling because participants pay a small sum of money for the chance to win a large prize. In the nineteenth century, states began to adopt lotteries as a way to raise funds for public works and to help their poor citizens. Today, 44 of the 50 states offer a state-sponsored lottery. In addition, there are many independent lotteries run by private organizations.

A key feature of a lottery is that the drawing of the winning numbers or symbols must be random. This means that the tickets must be thoroughly mixed, often mechanically (such as by shaking or tossing). Then, some percentage of the total ticket sales is deducted to cover costs such as promotional activities and administrative expenses, and the rest is allocated to prizes. Normally, there is a choice between a few large prizes and a number of smaller ones.

People have always played the lottery, but the modern version of it grew into a major industry in the nineteen-sixties. That was when growing awareness of all the money that could be made in the gaming business collided with a crisis in state funding. With population growth and inflation causing ever-larger budget deficits, it became difficult for states to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting essential services.

The lottery proved to be an attractive alternative because it promised the prospect of vast wealth with very little effort. People began to believe that the only thing standing between them and their dream homes, cars, vacations, or college educations was a little luck.

Consequently, as jackpots rose and the odds of winning diminished, more people bought tickets. Recognizing this, lottery commissioners began lifting prize caps and adding more numbers to the pool, thus making the odds of winning smaller still.

While this satisfies the craving for instant riches, it also focuses people’s attention on short-term gain rather than long-term gain. In contrast to this, the Bible teaches that God wants us to earn our wealth honestly by hard work and to realize that “lazy hands make for poverty” (Proverbs 23:5). Lottery play, then, is not only unwise from a financial perspective, it also undermines the value of hard work and family values. This article is adapted from a piece that appeared in the June 5, 2013, issue of The New York Times Magazine. Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved. Available at The New York Times on iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Also available on Kindle. This content is part of the American Edition. For subscription information, please click here. The Times welcomes comments on this story and on its coverage. If you have a question about this content, please send an email to [email protected].