The official lottery is the procedure by which a government distributes prizes (usually money or property) among people who pay for chances to win. It is not a game of chance, but rather an exercise in public policy that has a long and varied history. Its origin is obscure, but it has been used for centuries to do everything from determining military conscription to selecting jury members. Modern state lotteries are the main example. The word comes from the Italian noun lotto, which means “falling of the dice” or “fate.”
In modern times, it has taken on a broader meaning: any scheme for distributing property or money, whether by random drawing or according to some other formula. This includes games of chance, such as the keno slips produced by Chinese Han dynasty printers in about 205 to 187 BC, that were supposedly designed to finance major public projects, including the Great Wall. It also encompasses commercial promotions in which property or money is given away through a random process and includes state-sponsored gambling, such as the American Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries.
A lottery is a popular way for governments to raise funds and to distribute public goods and services, such as education, health care, and transportation. It also provides a way for poor or disadvantaged persons to get out of poverty, such as housing assistance programs.
The first government-run lotteries emerged in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries. They raised money for town fortifications and charities, such as feeding the poor. Town records in Ghent, Bruges, and elsewhere indicate that the practice was already well established by the fourteen-hundreds.
These early lotteries were characterized by their moral and religious roots, but as the America of the nineteen-sixties became more urbanized and increasingly defined politically by an aversion to taxation, they began to look like “budgetary miracles—the opportunity for states to make revenue appear almost out of thin air without risking a backlash at the polls.”
Today’s lotteries are much more complex, with instant tickets and video lottery terminals in addition to state-run games such as keno and numbers. Many have multi-state games and service a national market. In addition, they have adapted their message to appeal to young adults with an emphasis on luck and chance. Nevertheless, they remain a key source of state funding.