What is a Lottery?


Lottery, in the broadest sense of the term, is an arrangement by which prizes (often money or goods) are allocated by chance. The prize amount in a lottery depends on the total value of tickets sold and often includes the profits for the promoter, costs of promotion, and taxes or other revenues (see also Gambling). The lottery is popular among governments as a means of raising funds because it is simple to organize and popular with the general public.

The idea of distributing wealth and property by lot is long-standing, dating back at least to biblical times. The casting of lots for decisions and determining fates is common in many cultures, including that of the Roman Empire, where a lottery was used to distribute slaves.

In the United States, public lotteries were introduced early in colonial era America to raise funds for various purposes. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to obtain cannons for Philadelphia in the American Revolution, and George Washington attempted a lottery to fund road construction across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Privately organized lotteries were also common as mechanisms for collecting “voluntary” taxes to support products or properties whose sales would not have been possible for the promoter on a regular basis.

State lotteries are a major source of gambling revenue, and they are often touted as a way for states to avoid raising taxes. As a result, they enjoy broad public support, and their popularity tends to increase during periods of economic stress. The fact that lottery proceeds are earmarked for a particular public good, such as education, helps to sustain their popularity. In addition, state lotteries develop extensive specific constituencies that include convenience store owners; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by these businesses to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers, in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and state legislators.

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