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What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which players pay for a ticket and have a chance to win a prize by matching numbers drawn at random. States enact laws regulating the lottery, and they often delegate responsibility for running it to a government agency or commission. These divisions select and license retailers, train employees of those retailers to use lottery terminals, sell tickets, redeem winning tickets, and ensure that both retailers and players comply with lottery rules and laws. They also pay the top-tier prizes to winners.

State governments rely heavily on lottery revenues as an alternative to raising taxes or cutting popular programs. Many argue that lotteries are a “painless” source of revenue, and this dynamic often prevails over objective considerations of the state’s financial health.

The casting of lots for material gain has a long record in human history, but the modern lottery is relatively recent. The first recorded public lotteries with tickets for sale and prize money were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century, to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor.

Today, almost 50 percent of Americans buy a lottery ticket each year. But the distribution of playing is more uneven than this overall number implies: Men play more than women; lower-income people, and nonwhites, play more than whites; and younger players play less than older ones. In addition, lottery play decreases with education and rises with income. These patterns are consistent with a more general view of the lottery: that it promotes addictive gambling behavior, acts as a major regressive tax on the poor, and may undermine government’s ability to serve its citizens’ interests.