What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a form of gambling that gives prizes to winning participants at random. It can be as simple as a contest for units in a subsidized housing block or as complex as an arrangement to place kindergarten students in a reputable public school. Whether or not it’s run by the government, a lottery is designed to satisfy a need for something that’s in great demand but has limited supply.

Lotteries are a good source of revenue for states, whose coffers swell thanks to ticket sales and winners. But those dollars have to come from somewhere, and studies suggest that lottery proceeds disproportionately benefit low-income people and minorities.

The roots of the lottery go back centuries. In colonial America, lotteries played a key role in financing both private and public ventures, including road construction, canals, and churches. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons for Philadelphia’s defense against the British. George Washington used a lottery to fund his expedition against Canada.

These days, 44 states and the District of Columbia run their own lotteries. The six that don’t are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and, surprisingly, Nevada, which is home to Las Vegas. The reasons vary; Alabama and Utah are motivated by religious concerns, while Mississippi and Nevada get significant revenues from gambling taxes and don’t want a competing lottery to cut into their profits. Utah’s attitude may be changing, however, now that it’s facing a large budget deficit.