A competition based on chance, in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random. Lotteries have been used since ancient times to allocate land and property, and to raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public works projects. The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is described in many ancient documents, including the Bible. Lotteries first entered the United States in 1612, when King James I of England created a lottery to help finance his colony in Virginia. They became a popular way for states to raise money for schools and public works projects in the 17th century. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to build the Mountain Road in Virginia, and Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to fund cannons for the Revolutionary War. In the 19th century, several states banned them, but New Hampshire initiated a modern era of state lotteries in 1964. Since then, 37 states and the District of Columbia have established them.

Lottery participants generally understand that the odds of winning are low, and they play for fun and as a form of entertainment. But for some people, the lottery is their only hope of escaping poverty or finding a better life. Those who play the lottery regularly—about 13% of adults—play at least once a week (“regular players”) or one to three times a month (“occasional players”). Those who are married, have high school diplomas, and work full-time tend to play more than those who are single, have a college degree, and work part-time.

The lottery draws on a broad base of general support, but the emergence of specialized constituencies has also been important for its success. Convenience store operators, lottery suppliers, and teachers (in states where lotteries are a significant source of funding for education) become powerful lobbying forces in state legislatures. And lottery advertising frequently focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money on the game.

Some critics charge that the lottery promotes gambling by encouraging people to spend money they could otherwise use on other goods and services. Others argue that the lottery is not a good way to raise money for state governments, which need to fund a wide range of social safety net programs. And still others point out that the lottery is run as a business, and its advertising is designed to maximize revenues. That puts it at cross-purposes with state policies on compulsive gambling, the exploitation of lower-income people, and other matters of public policy. Nonetheless, the lottery is here to stay, and it continues to grow. The prize pool for Powerball, for example, is now over $1.765 billion. The winner will get that sum as an annuity, or a series of annual payments over 30 years. If they die before all of the payments are made, the remaining amount will pass to their heirs. The winners will also receive tax deductions for their participation in the lottery.