A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes given to the holders of numbers selected by lot. Such contests are commonly sponsored by states and organizations as a means of raising funds. Also used figuratively to refer to an activity or event whose outcome appears to depend on chance: They considered combat duty a lottery.

A key element in winning and retaining public approval for the lottery is the degree to which the proceeds are seen as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. But even this argument has not been strong enough to overcome concerns about compulsive gambling and the alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. In addition, state government budgetary pressures do not seem to have much influence on whether a state adopts a lottery.

Once a lottery is established, however, its success depends on the support of broad and often well-defined specific constituencies. These include convenience store owners (the typical vendors for tickets), lottery suppliers (whose large donations to state political campaigns are well known), teachers in states that earmark lottery revenues for them, and the general public (in those states where a significant percentage of adults play the lottery regularly). In addition, the profitability of a lottery relies on innovations that attract new players, such as games allowing participants to win cash rather than merchandise. As a result, lottery revenues typically expand rapidly at the beginning of a lottery’s existence, then level off or even decline, forcing it to introduce new games to maintain or increase revenues.