What is a Lottery?

A competition in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes (often money) are awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random. Often used to raise money for state governments or charities. Originally a general term, the word has come to refer specifically to state-sponsored lotteries. Historically, the term lottery has also been applied to other kinds of contests in which people pay to participate and win a prize, such as units in a housing block or kindergarten placements.

The earliest lottery records appear in the Low Countries during the 15th century, when towns held public lotteries to raise funds for building town walls and fortifications and to help the poor. Several states began lotteries in the early 17th century, and Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to fund cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Lotteries continued to grow in popularity in colonial America, and by the 18th century were used to finance a wide range of projects including roads and buildings at Harvard and Yale.

In the modern era, almost all states have established a lottery. Each typically establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery and begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Revenues generally explode soon after a lottery is introduced, but then level off and occasionally begin to decline. The need to maintain or increase revenues has resulted in constant innovation in the form of new games. These games are aimed at a broad spectrum of the population but do not necessarily attract all potential players. Lotteries have been criticized for their alleged negative effects, particularly in regard to the likelihood that winning the big jackpot will erode a lottery player’s quality of life.