What is a Lottery?

A contest based on chance in which tokens are distributed or sold and prizes are given to those whose numbers are drawn by lot: often sponsored by a state or organization as a way of raising funds. It may also refer to:

Despite their ubiquity, lotteries are controversial. Many critics charge that they promote gambling, are susceptible to fraud, and exploit the poor (lottery jackpots are generally paid in equal annual installments over 20 years; inflation dramatically erodes their current value). Others point out that a lottery’s promotion of gambling is at cross-purposes with the state’s responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.

Lotteries have a long history in the United States. The first was launched by King James I of England in 1612 to help finance ships to the Virginia settlement, and they quickly became a common feature—and irritant—of colonial life. They were used to fund towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects.

Today, state lotteries raise more than $100 billion each year, and they are an important source of revenue for the nation’s public agencies. But they are also subject to serious criticism, both of their promotional tactics and their financial reliance on specific groups, including convenience store owners (who often act as ticket outlets); high school dropouts (who spend nearly five times as much as college graduates per capita); and African-Americans. A comprehensive study of state lotteries by David Cook and Charles Clotfelter found that these specialized constituencies dominate state politics and limit the ability of public officials to set overall policy.