Public Welfare and the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game where people pay money for the chance to win a prize. In some cases, the prizes are large, and the odds of winning are high.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch word lotinge, meaning “action of drawing lots.” In England the word was first recorded in 1569. The lottery began as a way to raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public works projects.


Originally, lotteries were used to determine ownership or other rights. This practice dates back to ancient times and is still prevalent in many countries today, including the United States.

In the United States, the earliest state-sponsored lotteries were conducted in 1612 to finance the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Later, they were used to support the American Revolution and several other national causes.


After a state or locality establishes a lottery, revenues typically expand dramatically and then level off, with new games introduced to maintain or increase these earnings. The pressure to generate additional revenue often leads to an ongoing expansion of the lottery in size and complexity, with little consideration given to public welfare.

A key question is whether promoting the lottery in this way leads to negative consequences for the general public, including poor and problem gamblers. And, if so, whether this is an appropriate function for the lottery. In most cases, public officials inherit policies and a dependency on lottery revenues that can be difficult to change.

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