The Lottery As a Fundraising Tool


The lottery is a popular game in which people pay money to be entered into a drawing for a prize. The game is usually run by a governmental agency or corporation licensed by the government to operate it. The prizes are often cash or goods, such as cars or houses. People can also win scholarships or other educational grants. In the United States, most states have lotteries. Some have multiple types of games, such as instant-win scratch-off games and daily games. The chances of winning a prize are usually very small.

Although the casting of lots to determine fates has a long history, the lottery as a method of raising funds is of more recent origin. During the seventeenth century, colonial America relied on lotteries to build roads, canals, colleges, churches, and other public buildings. Lotteries were especially useful in raising money during the French and Indian War. Lotteries were also popular in Europe, where they were used to finance town fortifications and charitable activities.

Despite their popularity, lotteries are not without dangers. In addition to the ill effects of gambling addiction, there are social costs, including increased crime and strained family relationships. In some cases, a winner’s success can even lead to tragedy. Examples include Abraham Shakespeare, who shot his wife and children after winning $31 million in the Mega Millions; Jeffrey Dampier, who was kidnapped after winning $20 million in the Powerball lottery; and Urooj Khan, who dropped dead of cyanide poisoning after winning a $1 million jackpot in a Texas state lotto.

Some critics of the lottery argue that it is a “tax on the stupid.” Others, like Steven Cohen, note that lottery sales are responsive to economic fluctuation, and that ticket purchases can be seen as an alternative to saving for retirement or college tuition. Regardless of the rationale, it is important to recognize that lottery spending as a whole represents billions in foregone savings by individual players.

In recent years, advocates of legalization have changed the way they present the lottery’s benefits to voters. Rather than arguing that the lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they have begun to tout it as an essential funding source for a specific line item—typically education or veterans’ services, but occasionally elder care or public parks. This narrower approach has made it easier for proponents to explain that a vote in favor of the lottery is a vote for this particular service, not a general endorsement of gambling.

Lottery officials are not above exploiting the psychology of addiction. They advertise heavily, skew their statistics to exaggerate the chance of winning, and design the game’s math to keep people playing. It isn’t all that different from the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game makers.