The Costs of Running a Lottery


There’s a lot going on behind the scenes when you buy a lottery ticket. It’s not just the money you hand to a convenience store clerk; there are people who design scratch-off games, record live drawing events, and work at lottery headquarters to help winners when they come in. This is the overhead cost of running a lottery, and it has to be paid somehow. A small percentage of winnings goes to workers and the other costs.

The word “lottery” derives from the Middle Dutch word loetje, which means to cast lots, and it first appeared in English in the 1670s, probably as a calque of the French phrase loterie (literally “action of casting lots”) or Middle Dutch lodje (“lot”). The idea is to allocate prizes based on random selections of numbers. In most cases, the prize amounts are very large and the odds of winning are astronomical, but there’s no guarantee that anyone will win.

People have been playing lotteries for centuries, with ancient roots in the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, and early American colonization. Benjamin Franklin even ran a lottery during the Revolution to raise funds for cannons for the city of Philadelphia. The modern lottery is a state-run, commercially operated gambling game that offers participants the chance to win cash or other items.

Many people purchase lottery tickets with the notion that they’re a low-risk, high-reward investment. They might buy a $1 ticket, or two, and hope for the best—but they also know that it’s very unlikely they’ll win. And while buying a ticket might not be as expensive as gambling in a casino or investing in the stock market, it’s still a costly form of entertainment.

In addition to the profits made by the retailers selling tickets, a portion of the winnings go to a central pool for prizes, and the rest is taken out in administrative costs and taxes. Some of this revenue is earmarked for particular groups of people, such as children’s schools or veterans’ services, and some of it is put into a general fund to address budget shortfalls. However, the majority of this revenue ends up in the hands of the state, which has broad flexibility for how to spend it.

A large portion of the lottery money that isn’t distributed as prizes is used to pay for advertising and promotion. The lion’s share is spent on television and radio commercials, but some of the money is directed to community programs, such as support groups for gamblers in recovery or free transportation for seniors.

Lottery promoters are smart and creative in how they use their resources to attract players. They use billboards promoting the latest Mega Millions or Powerball jackpots, which are advertised in places where there is plenty of traffic. They also target specific constituencies, such as convenience store operators; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and legislators.