What is a Lottery?


A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and the winners are selected by drawing lots. Lotteries are often used to raise money for public projects and charity. They have a long history in human societies, with several instances recorded in the Bible. The practice was especially common in the Low Countries, where town records from the fifteenth century reveal that lottery sales were used to fund town fortifications and help the poor.

In America, the first state-run lotteries began in 1964, inspired by New Hampshire’s success and the need to find ways to finance government spending without enraging tax averse voters. The growth of lotteries accelerated, with states in the Northeast and Rust Belt following New York’s lead in 1967, and a dozen more states adopting them by 1970. Lotteries also spread to South Carolina and Virginia, where they were entangled with the slave trade—Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson managed a lottery that included enslaved people, and one formerly enslaved person, Denmark Vesey, bought his freedom through a South Carolina lottery prize and later helped foment a slave rebellion.

State-run lotteries are businesses that seek to maximize revenue by appealing to a wide range of demographic groups with the promise of great prizes, and they employ sophisticated marketing techniques to do so. These practices have raised questions about the effects of gambling on the poor, compulsive gamblers, and other social problems. But these concerns tend to focus on specific features of lottery operations rather than on the overall desirability of lotteries.

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