What is an Official Lottery?

Lottery is a procedure for distributing something (usually money or prizes) among a group of people by lot or chance. Its most common form is a game of chance in which individuals purchase chances, called lottery tickets, and the winning ticket is drawn from the pool. The odds of winning vary with the type and size of prize, with larger prizes offering lower probabilities of victory. Although the lottery is a legal form of gambling, federal law prohibits it from being conducted across state lines or involving someone other than a licensed operator. For example, California law prohibits purchasing lottery tickets for someone outside the state for a fee (although there are exceptions).

Early in American history, as Cohen points out, lotteries were often used as alternatives to taxation; even the Continental Congress tried to hold one to help fund the Revolutionary War. Public lotteries were popular as well, and helped finance everything from churches to civil defense to construction of the nation’s colleges—Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, and King’s College (now Columbia) all had their beginnings in a public lottery.

But by the nineteen-sixties, America’s aversion to taxes began to collide with an ever-increasing awareness of how much money could be made in the gambling industry. As a result, states were suddenly faced with the conundrum of funding their social safety net while simultaneously keeping gambling revenue at an acceptable level. Fortunately for them, the solution was simple: just start a state lottery.