How Does the Lottery Work?


In a lottery players pay to select numbers and machines randomly spit out prizes. Some prizes are money, while others, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school, are coveted goods. The odds of winning are proportionally related to the number of tickets purchased. Thus, one set of numbers is no luckier than another, but the more tickets are sold the higher the prize. Each state’s legislature establishes how the lottery works within its government. The Council of State Governments reported in 1998 that most lotteries are operated by quasi-governmental or privatized companies with some level of oversight provided by the lottery board, a state agency or executive branch office.

Some defenders of the lottery argue that its popularity stems from people’s inextricable urge to gamble or their ignorance about how unlikely it is to win. But this argument ignores the fact that lottery sales ebb and flow with economic trends. The lottery’s rise in the nineteen-sixties, for example, coincided with a steep decline in household wealth. Incomes dipped, pensions and health insurance eroded, and the long-held national promise that hard work would lead to middle-class prosperity lost its luster.

When these economic forces collided, state leaders found it difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. In the seventies, eighties and nineties many states turned to the lottery for a solution that wouldn’t rouse their anti-tax electorate. Lottery advocates dismissed ethical objections and argued that, since people were going to play anyway, governments should pocket the profits.