Lotteries are games in which tokens or numbers are drawn to determine winners. They are commonly held to raise money for public purposes, such as the construction of buildings or bridges. They also serve private purposes, such as determining the recipients of subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements.

People spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets each year, and states promote them as a way to raise revenue. But just how meaningful that revenue is in broader state budgets, and whether it’s worth the trade-offs to people who lose money, is debatable.

Lottery is one of the most successful examples of “political business.” Once a lottery has been established, its success depends on a tightly knit group of specific constituencies: convenience store owners (who are the lottery’s usual vendors); suppliers of lottery products and services (heavy contributions to state political campaigns by these companies are frequently reported); teachers (in states where the proceeds from the lottery are earmarked for education); and, of course, the general public (the number of people who play lottery games regularly is estimated at around 60%).

While the casting of lots to decide fate or make decisions has a long history, modern lotteries are based on the principle that payment of some consideration, usually money, gives the purchaser a chance to win a prize. These arrangements are often called gambling, although in some cases a consideration other than money can be paid (for example, military conscription or commercial promotions). Lottery is a classic instance of the piecemeal nature of public policymaking: decisions about lottery are made by individual committees and agencies within government, with little or no overall overview. As a result, a lottery’s evolution is often at cross-purposes with the public interest.