What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a gambling game that involves paying small amounts of money for a chance to win a larger amount of money. Lotteries are often organized so that a percentage of the profits is donated to good causes. The word “lottery” is probably derived from the Middle Dutch loterie, a contraction of the phrase “action of drawing lots” (lotto). The earliest state-sponsored lotteries appeared in the sixteenth century in Burgundy and Flanders with towns raising funds to build town fortifications or provide charity. In England, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567, dedicating the proceeds to “repair of the Havens and strength of the Realme.”

In colonial America, lotteries were a common means of financing private and public ventures. Lottery revenues supported road construction, canals, wharves, schools, libraries, colleges, and churches. Harvard and Yale were both partially funded by lotteries, and George Washington sponsored a lottery to raise money for the Continental Army. In addition, lottery profits financed public defenses and local militia.

Lotteries appeal to people’s basic human desires, particularly the desire for wealth. They also appeal to our propensity to covet what others have, a behavior that the Bible forbids: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his field, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or sheep, or anything that is his” (Exodus 20:17). Lottery players often believe that their problems will be solved if they can only hit the jackpot. The truth is, however, that winning the lottery is a losing proposition in terms of the long-term return on investment.