What is the Lottery?

The lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize — money or goods or services — is determined by drawing lots. In modern times, the term can also be used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away by a random procedure, or even the selection of jury members from registered voters (although this latter example does not strictly qualify as a lottery since payment must be made for a chance to win).

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history in human culture. But lotteries organized for the purpose of material gain are more recent, beginning in the 16th century with private lottery games such as those held at dinner parties to distribute prizes in the form of fancy items like dinnerware. In colonial America, lotteries raised money for a variety of public projects and helped build such famous colleges as Harvard and Yale.

By the early 20th century, state governments began organizing regular lotteries to raise money for a variety of public uses. Lotteries became very popular, and the resulting revenue was hailed as a painless form of taxation.

Today, state-sponsored lotteries are a major source of public revenue in 37 states and the District of Columbia. They typically attract broad public support and have a high level of player participation. But they are not without their problems. Revenues usually expand rapidly after a lottery is introduced but then begin to plateau and decline. To keep revenues growing, lotteries introduce new games and invest heavily in promotion.