Lottery is a game in which participants purchase tickets with numbers printed on them, and a prize is awarded to the person whose numbers are drawn. The games are commonly run by state governments, though some privately owned companies also operate them. Lotteries are controversial for a number of reasons, including the possibility that they can distort market signals and encourage unethical behavior. In addition, they have been accused of exploiting the poor.

State lotteries are a fairly recent innovation in the United States. When they began to appear in the 1960s, after a half-century hiatus, they were sold to the public as easy fundraising tools that would funnel millions into schools and other social programs. But critics say they have a hidden cost: they promote gambling in a way that is at odds with the public interest.

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history. It is recorded that Caesar held a lottery in order to raise funds for municipal repairs, and in the 15th century, towns in the Low Countries used lotteries to sell prizes of money and land. The first recorded lottery to distribute money for the benefit of the poor was held in Bruges in 1466.

Today, most state lotteries use a similar model: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an independent agency or public corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under constant pressure to raise revenue, progressively expands the size and complexity of its operations. While a small percentage of the proceeds go to good causes, most of the money is spent on marketing and operational costs.