Official lottery is the procedure of distributing something (usually money or prizes) by lot or chance. The word is derived from the Latin litera, meaning “letter,” and it was first used in English to mean an official announcement of a draw of lots. This term later came to refer to a specific type of gambling, where individuals purchased chances in the hope of winning a prize based on a random drawing of numbers. It also became the name for a government-approved method of raising funds for public projects.

The modern lottery started in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the huge profits to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. As Cohen recounts, the nation was suffering from booming inflation and soaring interest rates, and its governments found it increasingly difficult to balance budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services that were highly unpopular with voters.

State lotteries became a popular alternative. They could raise a large sum of money relatively quickly and without the voters’ objections to tax increases, as long as the winnings were limited and transparently disclosed. And they offered states a way to finance important social programs while bypassing the electoral process, thus circumventing the powerful interest groups that have always blocked legalization of gambling.

Today, state-approved lotteries continue to be an attractive source of revenue for many governments, with Powerball jackpots reaching more than $2 billion and attracting tens of millions of players. But critics of legalization warn that promoting lottery play exposes people to the risk of addiction and encourages irresponsible spending. They argue that a small percentage of lottery players, who account for most of the sales, are especially vulnerable and that lotteries promote racial inequality by disproportionately attracting black players.