The lottery is a type of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine a prize. It is also a method of allocating something, such as a job or an apartment, among equal applicants. The idea of distributing property or goods by lot is as old as the Bible; Moses was instructed to divide land by lottery (Numbers 26:55-56) and Roman emperors gave away slaves and property this way during Saturnalian feasts.

The first recorded lotteries offered tickets to win cash prizes, such as money or goods. They were used in the Low Countries as early as the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. A similar lottery was used to award places in colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College and William & Mary, although these public lotteries were considered to be voluntary taxes rather than state-imposed taxes.

The modern state lotteries were largely introduced in the immediate post-World War II period when states were expanding their array of services and they needed revenue to do so. There was a belief that state lotteries would catch people who were already going to gamble, and therefore they might as well offer the games and make some money at the same time. However, this logic is flawed. Lotteries are in essence just another form of gambling and they disproportionately appeal to lower-income, less educated, nonwhite and male individuals who tend to buy a lot of tickets.