A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. Also: any scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance; any happening or process whose outcome appears to be determined by chance: Life is a lottery.

In America, the term “lottery” is most often used to describe a state-sponsored game in which numbers are drawn to determine winners of a prize (typically money). People play lotteries for many reasons, from playing for fun to believing that winning the lottery will give them the means to improve their lives. However, despite the enormous amounts of money that lottery players spend on tickets each year, the chances of winning are incredibly low.

Some states use lotteries to fund a variety of public projects, from roads and bridges to libraries and universities. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress even ran a lottery to raise funds to support the Colonial army. In addition, the founding of Princeton and Columbia Universities and the construction of canals and railroads were all financed by lotteries in colonial America.

But most of the money that is raised through lotteries ends up being a drop in the bucket for actual state government revenue and income. From 1964 to 2019, lotteries have raised $502 billion, a significant sum, but only about 2 percent of total state revenues. And even that figure obscures the regressivity of these taxes, which tend to hit lower-income residents harder than others.