What is a Lottery?

Lottery is a game in which tokens are sold and a drawing is held to determine winners. Unlike sports events or even business meetings, the outcome of a lottery depends almost entirely on chance. Lotteries are used in many situations, such as distributing property or a unit in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a public school.

People like to gamble, and the lottery plays on that inextricable human impulse. It also offers the promise of a quick financial windfall in an age of rising inequality and limited social mobility. It isn’t an accident that the lottery attracts poor and working-class people in particular.

Since 1964, the United States has raised a total of $502 billion through lotteries, and those dollars certainly have been spent. But that amount, when compared to state budgets and overall state revenue, amounts to only 1 or 2 percent. And if you look at the distribution of those lottery proceeds, you can see why some people think that it isn’t really fair.

Historically, governments and licensed promoters have held lotteries to raise money for various purposes, including building colleges. For example, the Continental Congress in 1776 voted to establish a lottery to finance the Revolution, and the American colonies had private lotteries by the early 18th century to fund projects such as a battery of guns for Philadelphia, and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. Privately organized lotteries sprang up in England and the United States as mechanisms for obtaining “voluntary taxes” and supported such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Brown.