The official lottery is a form of gambling run by states or sovereign nations that allows players to win a prize in exchange for money. It is a popular source of revenue for governments, and it has become the largest form of gambling in most countries. In the United States, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia participate in state lotteries. In 2002, they reaped more than $42 billion. Lottery supporters promote the game as a painless alternative to higher taxes, while opponents attack it as dishonest and unseemly. Some state legislators have even called for the ban of the lottery, arguing that it violates public morals by encouraging gambling.
In the immediate post-World War II period, states were short on revenue and long on needs, and they seized upon the lottery as an easy solution to their problem. They also believed that, in the long run, the lottery would be a potent source of money that could allow them to get rid of all the other forms of taxation that had accompanied their expansion of public services.
This was a dangerous belief. As the historian Charles Cohen points out, it meant that state governments essentially took on the role of con artists—luring people into gambling games with promises of riches that they never intended to pay out. And it was a particularly harmful illusion for poor, minority populations that were the most likely to play the lottery.
The earliest state lotteries began in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where they were used to finance town fortifications, to build houses for the poor, and for other purposes. They were a common part of life in the cities and towns of Europe for centuries, until they spread to England by the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, lottery games became increasingly centralized and legalized.
A modern state lottery usually has three basic elements. First, it offers a large cash prize to everyone who plays, which in turn ensures that the state will collect enough money from tickets to cover its expenses and make a profit. The prize is typically advertised on television, radio, and billboards. It may be cash, goods, or services. Second, a lottery must be administered in a way that prevents fraud and other abuses. The third element is marketing—lotteries must make sure they are well-known and attract people to buy tickets.
A state must also create an administrative structure that is independent of political influence, and it must establish security procedures to protect its assets. Finally, it must train employees to be able to detect and report violations of the rules. It must also publish the results of its inspections and audits. The Iowa Lottery strives to be transparent, and it is committed to protecting its customers from any unauthorized activity. It must also monitor the activities of its retailers and prohibit the sale of lottery products outside authorized locations. The state is also obligated to conduct regular security studies, and the results must be published on its website.