A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random, often as a means of raising money for the state or for charity. Also used, especially in the United States, as a noun: the act of playing a lottery, or the action of running a lottery.

Historically, states have relied on lotteries to generate revenue that they cannot otherwise get through taxes or other forms of direct government funding. This arrangement served states well during the immediate post-World War II period, but it no longer can.

In the 21st century, many states are struggling to maintain their social safety nets while trying to avoid a fiscal collapse. Some of them have begun to offer the lottery as a way to raise revenue, but this is a bad idea on both economic and moral grounds.

Lottery has a long and complex history, and it is no stranger to controversy. The word itself is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate.” Early lotteries were used to fund public usages such as roads and canals, but they eventually came to be viewed as a painless form of taxation.

Americans spend more than $100 billion annually on lottery tickets. The majority of players are low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. They are disproportionately represented among the group that buys Powerball tickets every week. According to Gallup, these people are the most enthusiastic about the lottery and feel that they have a civic duty to participate.