Lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn and winners receive a prize based on the number of tickets purchased. Prizes can be cash, goods, services, or even housing. Some lotteries have a single large prize, while others offer smaller prizes in a series of drawings.

The first lotteries, Cohen writes, were privately run by rich Roman noblemen as a form of entertainment during Saturnalia celebrations. Later, when public money was needed to repair Rome’s roads and walls, lottery games emerged as a method of collecting funds. The first state-sponsored lotteries appear in the fifteenth century in Europe, but their roots may be traced to ancient times. Town records in the Low Countries show that lotteries were used to raise money for town fortifications and poor relief as early as 1445.

In the modern era, public support for lotteries became widespread when growing awareness of the enormous sums to be made from gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Many states, especially those that provided a generous social safety net for their citizens, found themselves struggling to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

Lotteries were a politically acceptable way to raise money because they did not require that everyone pay equally for the chance of winning. But critics alleged that they were addictive and regressive, and that those who won often found themselves worse off than before. Today, the debate over lotteries shifts from whether they should exist to how much state governments should profit from them.