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What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a competition in which numbers are drawn at random to determine ownership of a prize. State governments often establish lotteries to raise money for public projects. They typically legislate a monopoly for themselves; hire a public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a portion of profits); and begin operations with a small number of relatively simple games. They then, under pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand the lottery in size and complexity.

The word “lottery” is derived from Middle Dutch loterie, which is believed to be a calque on Middle French loterie, itself a calque on the Old Dutch word for the action of drawing lots. The drawing of lots to determine property and other rights is recorded in many ancient documents, including the Bible. Lotteries grew in popularity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, raising money for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to raise funds for a road through the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it failed to meet its goal.

People who play the lottery know that their chances of winning are incredibly slim. But for some people, it can become an all-consuming habit; they spend billions in lottery tickets each year that could otherwise be put toward retirement or college tuition. This type of behavior is called pathological gambling. For these people, the lottery can be an ugly underbelly of American society, a place where they can find comfort in a world that seems hopelessly corrupt.

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