A lottery is a process in which prizes are awarded by random selection. Lotteries are often used in the distribution of prizes in situations where demand exceeds supply, such as for units in a subsidized housing complex or kindergarten placements at a prestigious public school. They are also common in games of chance, such as a baseball game or a casino slot machine.
The classic short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson gives a vivid picture of small-town American life. It opens with a family gathering for their annual rite of the lottery, and as children pile up stones, adults discuss the event with an air of excitement and nervousness. An old man quotes a traditional proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
Lotteries have long been used to give away goods and services, with the proceeds given to charity or public projects. Some of these goods were of significant value, like property or slaves, while others were quite trivial. In modern times, state governments have adopted the practice as a way to expand their array of social safety nets without imposing high taxes on the middle class or working class.
A key message lottery marketers rely on is that the money people spend on tickets is a public good, and the proceeds benefit the entire community. This view of lotteries as a virtuous source of revenue has made them very popular in the United States. However, when the jackpots get huge—as they did in Florida in recent years—the benefits for everyone become less clear.