What is the Lottery?


Across North America and elsewhere government-operated lotteries sell more than 100 types of games, attracting players from all walks of life and income levels. In fiscal 2023, lottery sales totaled over $113.3 billion. Lotteries market their products to society as a whole, much like any other business. However, people do tend to play more heavily relative to their incomes, and certain socio-economic groups are more frequent gamblers than others. Men play more than women, Hispanics and blacks more than whites; the young and old play less; and those with high education levels play more than those with little or no schooling.

In a time of widespread economic inequality and newfound materialism, lotteries provide the promise that anyone can become rich with a bit of luck. The public seems to buy that message, as well as the notion that winning the lottery would solve all their problems. Lotteries are a major source of revenues for state governments, which are subject to constant pressure to spend that money.

The word lottery is probably derived from the Latin loteria, meaning “drawing lots,” which in turn might be a calque on Middle Dutch loetje, or “action of drawing lots.” Making decisions and determining fates by drawing lots has a long record in human history; but using the lottery for material gain is more recent. The first modern lottery began in New Hampshire in 1964. Today state lotteries operate in 47 states plus the District of Columbia and in many Canadian provinces.