What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay for tickets that have numbers on them. Random selection of those numbers determines a winner or a small group of winners. The prize money may be cash or goods. It can also be a share of property or public services, like units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a prestigious public school.

Although making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history, lottery games in which the participants are paid for a chance to win something of value are only fairly recent, dating back to the middle of the 15th century. During the early American era, state legislatures often sponsored lotteries as a way to raise funds for various purposes. Benjamin Franklin, for example, proposed a lottery to finance cannons for the defense of Philadelphia during the American Revolution. Private lotteries were also popular, and some of them helped to finance a number of American colleges, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, King’s College, Union, and Brown.

States often cite the popularity of their lotteries as proof that they can provide public services without heavy taxation. The fact is, however, that most state lottery games skew heavily toward the middle and upper classes. In addition, studies indicate that lottery players come from low-income neighborhoods at far lower proportions than they are in the overall population. Because the lotteries are run as business enterprises with a mandate to maximize revenues, their advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money. This function is at cross-purposes with the state’s general social welfare goals.