A game in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes awarded to the holders of winning numbers drawn at random. Often used as a means of raising money for public purposes. The term is probably derived from Middle Dutch loterie, a corruption of Middle French loterie, a calque on Middle English lotere ‘to cast lots’.
The lottery is a big business in America, making up some 50 percent of national lottery sales, with about 30 million people buying one ticket each week. But the actual distribution of players is much more uneven than that figure implies, with lower-income and less educated people in particular being disproportionately represented. In addition, those who play are more likely to be African American or Hispanic and less likely to own a home or have an occupational or educational degree.
Many, but not all, state governments offer lottery games. In some states, a portion of the proceeds are allocated to education and other programs. Historically, they have also been important funding sources for public works and charitable causes. The foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities was financed by the Academy Lottery in the 1740s, and lotteries subsidized roads, canals, bridges, libraries, schools, churches, colleges, hospitals, and other public projects in colonial America.
While the odds of winning a lottery prize are astronomically low, there is an undeniable human impulse to participate. And for some, that may be their only hope of a better life.