The word “lottery” is most closely associated with games of chance that award cash prizes to participants who match a set of randomly drawn numbers. The term also applies to other situations that depend on random selection, such as the lottery for kindergarten admission at a reputable school or for occupying units in a subsidized housing block.
Lotteries are a popular way to raise money for public projects without raising taxes. Their history goes back to the Low Countries in the 15th century, where towns held lotteries to build walls and town fortifications, support poor people, and finance other public uses. Records of the early American colonies mention numerous lottery-like events, including George Washington’s use of a lottery to pay for cannons during the Revolutionary War and Benjamin Franklin’s plan to run one to fund Faneuil Hall rebuilding in Boston.
In modern times, the lottery is primarily an instrument for raising revenue to pay for state programs and services. After paying out the prize money, states keep the rest of the ticket sales and advertising revenue. Americans spend about $80 billion a year on lotteries, or about $660 per household.
The biggest reason why people buy tickets is that they like to gamble. There’s just this inextricable human urge to take a shot at winning. That’s why super-sized jackpots are so effective as marketing tools: They give the game a chance to attract headlines and free publicity and lure people into buying tickets who otherwise wouldn’t.