Lottery is a game of chance in which participants purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize, such as cash or goods. The prizes are awarded if the numbers or symbols on the ticket match those drawn by machines at random. Although making decisions by casting lots has a long history in human society, the modern lottery is of relatively recent origin. It was first introduced in the United States by New Hampshire in 1964, and in most other states by the late 1960s.

Most state lotteries raise about a third of their revenue through ticket sales. The remainder comes from interest on the investment of winning tickets and other sources. The resulting income is often used for public purposes, such as education, roadwork and bridge work, or to provide social services. Some states also use it to pay off debt.

The legality of lotteries is generally upheld by the courts, but the games are subject to criticism for their irrational nature and the fact that they can lead to compulsive gambling behavior. Several states have banned the games altogether, but most allow them to operate with few restrictions. Critics charge that much of the advertising for the games is misleading, inflating the odds of winning (in reality, the winnings are usually paid out in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding their current value); exaggerating the size of the jackpot; and portraying the games as a last, best, or only hope at a life-changing windfall.

Many of the same arguments that were used to justify the introduction of lotteries are now used to criticize them, ranging from concerns about compulsive gambling to the regressive impact on lower-income groups. Despite these objections, the overwhelming majority of voters support state lotteries. In part, this reflects the general resentment of taxes, especially those on higher-income individuals.

Moreover, the lottery is often perceived as a “painless” source of public revenue, because people voluntarily spend money for the benefit of the state without demanding tax increases in return. This is a particularly attractive argument during periods of economic stress, when the prospect of cutting government spending might be politically difficult. But in actuality, the popularity of lotteries is not correlated with a state’s fiscal condition.

State lotteries are a classic example of how public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, with few if any consideration given to the overall impact on the general population. When a lottery is established, the state legislates its monopoly; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run it; begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then expands its operations in response to pressure for more revenue. This is a pattern that has played out in virtually every state where a lottery has been introduced.