Public Services and the Lottery


A lottery is a type of gambling in which people pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a larger sum. Lottery proceeds often go to public services, such as education or public infrastructure. Some states prohibit lottery participation while others endorse it or regulate its operation. Criticism of lotteries focuses on the problem of compulsive gamblers and on alleged regressive effects on low-income groups. The continuing evolution of state lotteries illustrates the difficulty of making public policy in a piecemeal, incremental fashion.

In recent decades, lottery revenue has become a major source of funds for higher education in many states. In some cases, lottery money has paid for buildings and even entire campuses. Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth are just a few of the schools that owe their existence to lottery money. In addition, some states have used lottery money to build new towns and cities.

The word lottery is believed to derive from the Dutch noun “lot,” meaning fate, and the verb lotre, to throw (see also fate). It was common in the 17th century for citizens to draw lots to determine various kinds of public usages. The oldest running lottery is the Netherlands-based Staatsloterij, founded in 1726.

In 2003, almost 186,000 retailers sold lottery tickets in the United States. The vast majority of these are convenience stores, but other outlets include nonprofit organizations (churches and fraternal organizations), service stations, restaurants and bars, bowling alleys, and newsstands. Retailers typically collaborate with lottery personnel to ensure effective merchandising and advertising.