How the Lottery Works


Lottery is a system of distribution of prizes by chance. Its history dates back to the 15th century, when towns in the Low Countries held public lotteries to raise money for walls and town fortifications. The name is probably from Dutch, a calque of Middle English loterie “action of drawing lots.” Today’s lottery is more complex than its medieval predecessor. It can involve numbers, letters, or symbols on tickets; a prize might be money, a car, a vacation, or even a whole city.

Lotteries are a huge money maker for state governments, whose coffers swell as people purchase tickets and winners receive their winnings. But that money has to come from somewhere, and studies suggest it’s largely from low-income people, minorities, and those with gambling addiction. Vox’s Alvin Chang recently looked at Connecticut data and found that lottery ticket sales are disproportionately concentrated in poor neighborhoods.

The regressive nature of the lottery is complicated by the fact that, despite its obvious flaws, it’s also very addictive. The gambler’s niggling sense that they’ll eventually win, however improbable, keeps them coming back for more.

To keep their profits high, lottery administrators have a few tricks up their sleeves. They make sure winners are fairly represented by adjusting the jackpot amounts and number of draws. They also keep track of trends in demand to ensure their games remain popular and encourage people to play more frequently. The following chart, from the NASPL Web site, shows lottery data for 2003. Each row is an application, each column a position in the lottery. The colors indicate how often each application was awarded that position. A truly random lottery would have each application appear in a given position a comparable amount of times.

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