Public Policy and the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which tickets are sold for chances to win prizes, usually money. A percentage of the prize pool normally goes to the organizers (in modern times, often state governments or private sponsors) and a smaller proportion is distributed as winning prizes to ticket holders.

The odds of winning a lottery prize vary widely. Some people buy tickets only for the big jackpots, and these are the prizes that generate the most publicity; others play for small prizes. To make the prize money attractive enough to attract bettors, lottery officials have to balance the size of the prizes with their cost of organization and promotion, which must also be deducted from the prize pool.

Historically, lotteries have played an important role in funding government projects, such as roads and bridges. They were a popular way to raise funds for the first English colonies in America, even though they violated Protestant church laws against gambling. In 1748 Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to help finance the city of Philadelphia; John Hancock ran one in Boston to build Faneuil Hall; and George Washington used one to try to fund a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains, although that effort failed.

Modern lotteries are run as businesses, and their advertising focuses on encouraging gamblers to spend a large portion of their incomes on tickets. This approach has raised questions about whether or not lottery games are appropriate for public policy, and whether they promote excessive consumption of gambling and other harmful substances.