A competition in which numbered tickets are sold for the chance to win money or goods. Prizes are usually awarded to the holders of winning numbers selected at random. Lottery is often used as a means of raising funds for public purposes, such as providing social benefits or public works projects. The word lottery may also refer to a specific kind of competition or event whose outcome depends on chance, such as a contest for student admission to a school or the assignment of jury duty.

In a political context, state lotteries are an attempt to reduce taxes on the wealthy and shift them to the poor by arguing that winning the lottery is good for society because it helps fund schools and the like. This argument is based on the assumption that people buy the lottery out of a sense of civic duty or altruism. But the evidence shows that the real motivation for buying a ticket is usually entertainment or fantasy value, which cannot be accounted for by decision models based on expected utility maximization. Moreover, the purchase of lottery tickets is not necessarily rational even for those who understand the mathematics, because the cost of tickets is generally more than the expected gains.

Lottery revenue typically expands rapidly after being introduced, but then levels off or declines. To maintain or increase revenues, new games must be introduced regularly. Lottery advertising focuses on the size of prizes and is designed to appeal to the public’s desire to win large amounts of money. It is not surprising, then, that the percentage of the population playing the lottery increases with income.

People who are poor or have limited opportunities for work and career advancement tend to be more interested in the chances of winning a big jackpot than those who are already well off. This tendency, coupled with the widespread belief that the lottery is a meritocratic way to become rich, creates an environment in which the lottery can be seen as a path to prosperity, even though its chances of success are extremely small.

It is important to remember that, however, the lottery is a form of gambling, and its primary function is to promote and sell the idea of chance. While some people are able to resist the lure of the lottery and stay away from it, many others fall prey to its message and buy tickets. This is at odds with the state’s legitimate mission to protect its citizens from predatory gambling and other forms of illegal gaming. In promoting the lottery, the state is in danger of working at cross-purposes with its own interests. By promoting a form of gambling that can have negative effects on the poor, problem gamblers, and children, it risks losing the trust of the people it serves. The writer is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan. He studies gambling and the economy. His current research focuses on the effects of state lotteries on the welfare of citizens and the effectiveness of government regulation.