What is the Lottery?

The lottery is a game of chance where the winners are selected through a random drawing. A lot of people purchase tickets for a small amount in order to have the chance to win a huge sum of money, which can sometimes run into millions of dollars. Financial lotteries, often run by state or federal governments, are similar to gambling and have been around for a long time. The word “lottery” may come from the Latin verb lotare, meaning “to throw a dice,” or it could also be derived from the Middle Dutch word lotere, which means “to draw lots.”

Although the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a lengthy record in human history—it is attested by both the Bible and Roman Emperor Nero’s favorite pastime, the Saturnalia–the modern practice of using the lottery for material gain is much newer, dating back only a few centuries. It was first used in Europe as a kind of party game, with guests at dinner parties receiving tickets that they would use to determine their prizes, which often included fancy dinnerware and other goods. The lottery quickly caught on in England and, after its spread to the American colonies, was popular despite Protestant proscriptions against playing cards and dice.

During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. This and other private lotteries were common throughout the colonies, although they were not widely publicized because of state prohibitions against gambling. These lotteries were largely successful in raising funds for infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, as well as schools, hospitals and colleges.

But they were also popular with people who could afford to play them, including the general public (in states where lotteries are legal, 60% of adults report that they have played at least once in their lives) and specialized constituencies, such as convenience store owners (who are the typical vendors for lottery games); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by these businesses are frequently reported); teachers (in those states that have earmarked lottery revenues for education); and, most significantly, the general public at large, which is addicted to the hope of winning the big prize.

Many of these people go into the lottery with clear-eyed knowledge that the odds of winning are long. But they still buy tickets, often in multiple states and at different times of the day, chasing the elusive dream that some set of numbers, however improbable, is theirs. In many cases, the addiction to winning is fueled by a belief that it will be their only way out of a rut. That rut is not unlike the one that traps some people in an abusive relationship. Just because you feel trapped doesn’t mean that you can’t escape. Getting out of that relationship is the hard part. Changing your habits is not always easy, but it is doable. This is a fun and informative video that can be used by kids and teens, as well as adults, in a Money & Personal Finance course or K-12 curriculum.