Lottery is a form of gambling where prizes are allocated by drawing lots. It’s a popular way to raise money for public uses. The prizes are often large cash sums, though the total prize pool can also include goods or services. The word is believed to be derived from the Dutch noun lot meaning “fate” or “fateful event.”

The earliest recorded lottery was a keno slip found in the Chinese Han dynasty (2nd millennium BC). In the United States, colonial Americans held lotteries to fund roads, libraries, churches, canals, colleges, and bridges. The Continental Congress voted to establish a national lottery in 1776, but the plan was later abandoned. Privately organized lotteries continued, and they played a significant role in the funding of American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Brown.

Today, lotteries are most commonly conducted by state governments. They are usually marketed as a painless form of taxation, but their contributions are relatively small to state budgets. They rely on the message that every time you play, you’re contributing to the good of the state—even if the odds of winning are really long.

A lot of people play the lottery because they like to gamble, but there’s more to it than that. Lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. They also target a very specific group of players: lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. This skews the results of the lottery and distorts its utility.