Is the Lottery Legal?

The lottery is a popular way to raise money for public services. But it’s also an addictive and regressive form of gambling that lures people who can least afford it, and then wrings them dry of their hard-earned cash. And, like tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers, state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of psychology—and blatant manipulation of probability—to keep players coming back for more.

In its simplest form, a lottery offers one prize—typically money, but sometimes goods or services—to every ticket purchased. Each number has an equal chance of being drawn, and the prize is determined by a random process. The prizes are normally proportional to the total value of tickets sold, minus promotional expenses and taxes.

Whether or not a lottery is legal depends on how it’s structured and the laws of the jurisdiction in question. In most states, there are two important laws to consider: (1) the law requiring a percentage of proceeds go to education and (2) the law limiting ticket sales to adults.

In the early days of the American republic, states often used lotteries to raise funds for a variety of public purposes, including construction of schools and bridges, town fortifications, and even churches. The earliest recorded lotteries to offer tickets bearing prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. The word “lottery” is derived from Middle Dutch loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Today, the vast majority of lotteries are commercial enterprises that depend on sales of tickets for their profits, and governments rarely regulate them. The lottery business is booming, especially as more and more states struggle with fiscal problems and an anti-tax electorate. Almost half of all Americans buy tickets, spending about $80 billion a year, more than most people earn in a whole year.

Lotteries have been around for millennia, and many of the oldest have a religious origin. The biblical Book of Numbers, for instance, instructs Moses to distribute land and slaves by lot. In ancient Rome, emperors often gave away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts.

In addition to the religious roots of lotteries, they have been a popular pastime throughout much of history. They were a common source of entertainment at fairs, festivals, and carnivals, and in modern times they can be found in games like bingo, the slot machine, and poker.

The narrator of Elder’s story, for example, attends a weekly lottery game in the small town of That Region with the villagers, and she describes it as one of many “civic activities” the villagers engage in—with “square dances and teenage clubs and Halloween programs.” But while these activities may seem harmless at first glance, their ugly underbelly is revealed when Tessie Hutchinson suddenly becomes a millionaire and starts to behave differently.