What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a distribution process in which prizes are allocated to individuals by a random method that relies entirely on chance. It can be an efficient means of allocating resources in certain circumstances. In colonial America, for instance, it funded road construction and canals, as well as the building of churches and colleges. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to fund part of his military campaign against the French in 1768.

Today, lottery revenues are a popular source of money for state governments. But the money comes at a cost: studies have shown that lottery play is disproportionately low-income and minority, and that it can be addictive for some people. Moreover, lottery advertising necessarily targets those groups, promoting the idea that winning the lottery is a way to change their lives for the better.

This approach is at odds with the purpose of lotteries, which should be designed to distribute prizes fairly. But to do that, a number of requirements must be met. First, the pool of tickets must be thoroughly mixed. Then, a percentage must be deducted to cover the costs of organizing and promoting the lottery. Finally, the remaining amount must be divided between a few large prizes and many smaller ones. To ensure that this division is fair, the process of selecting winners must be randomized. This can be done by shaking or tossing the tickets, or by using a computer to generate random numbers or symbols.