What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which people buy tickets for a chance to win a prize based on luck or chance. The word lottery is from Middle Dutch lotinge, probably a calque on Middle French loterie (Oxford English Dictionary). The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were in Flanders in the first half of the 15th century. The British began promoting them in earnest in the 17th century. They played a role in financing the establishment of the first colonial American states, including Boston and Philadelphia. In colonial era America, the government and licensed promoters used lotteries to fund all or part of many projects such as paving streets, building wharves, repairing bridges, and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

In more recent times, state governments have started to use the lottery for a variety of social and economic purposes. These include the allocation of units in subsidized housing blocks and kindergarten placements at reputable public schools, among other things. The financial lottery is the most familiar example, in which players pay a small amount of money (usually $1) to select groups of numbers or have machines randomly spit them out and then win prizes if enough of their number matches those drawn by a machine.

Although state lotteries may serve some worthy social purposes, they also raise serious questions about the role of government in promoting gambling and in particular its impact on poor and problem gamblers. Many lotteries are run as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues. In doing so, they often promote the idea that winning the lottery is a shortcut to wealth and eliminates the need to work hard or save.

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