Governments and the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling whereby participants pay a small amount of money for a chance to win a prize. Typically, prizes are money or goods. Most states have lotteries. These lotteries are regulated by state law and are often run by a lottery board or commission. These agencies select and train retail employees, purchase lottery terminals and related software, distribute promotional materials to retailers and players, redeem tickets, and pay high-tier prizes to winners. They also monitor ticket sales to ensure compliance with state laws and rules.

Although casting lots for determining fates and conducting public lotteries have a long record in human history, they are only very recently used by governments to raise money. In the immediate post-World War II era, governments were eager to expand their social safety nets and hoped that lotteries would help them do so without raising especially onerous taxes on the middle and working classes.

Since New Hampshire introduced its state lottery in 1964, virtually all other states have followed suit, relying heavily on the revenue generated by these games to meet their financial needs. Supporters argue that lotteries are a source of “painless” taxation, in which the general public voluntarily spends money for the benefit of their community. Opponents counter that the lottery is a dishonest and unseemly form of taxation, preying on the hopes and anxieties of those who cannot afford to play it.

While many people view the lottery as a benign way for state governments to raise money, it has a dark side. It is a form of taxation that is regressive in that the poor and working class are disproportionately affected by its costs. It can also contribute to social problems, such as substance abuse and mental illness.

Governments use the lottery to fund a wide range of projects and services. In the past, lottery proceeds were used to build roads, subsidize schools, and support the military. Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to fund cannons for the defense of Philadelphia, and George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to build a road across the mountains.

The prizes for the lottery are usually the total value of all ticket sales minus expenses (promotional costs, profits for the promoter, and taxes or other revenues). Most lotteries offer a single large prize and several smaller ones. The number and value of the smaller prizes depend on how many tickets are sold. In addition, some states have special prizes for seniors and other groups. In some cases, the prizes are donated by private companies. In other cases, the prizes are funded by state bonds. A few states use their own private bonds, but most buy the bonds from the federal government under an arrangement called STRIPS (Securities Transferred to the Treasury for Income) or zero-coupon bonds. Some also issue their own state-based bonds. A few states have even established their own gaming commissions to control the lottery. In most of these cases, the governing body is a quasi-independent agency that reports to a legislative or executive branch authority.