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What is the Lottery?

A lottery is a gambling game in which chance determines the winners. Some governments outlaw the activity, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. The prizes may be cash or goods. Often, the money is taxable. Generally, a large prize is offered along with several smaller ones. The concept of a lottery dates back to the low countries in the 15th century, where towns used it to raise money for building walls and town fortifications.

Today, the lottery is a multibillion-dollar industry that lures millions of people to buy tickets, even those who don’t play games or gamble in any other way. The big jackpots of the Mega Millions and Powerball attract attention and spur spending. But the odds of winning are incredibly slim. In fact, the average ticket holder loses more than he or she wins. Nonetheless, the industry sells itself on the image of low risk, high reward, and as an attractive alternative to savings and investments.

But this picture is incomplete and misleading. Although one in eight Americans plays the lottery at least once a year, the players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. They spend billions on tickets, and as a group contribute billions in taxes that could be spent on other things, like retirement or college tuition. Some of them also forego other opportunities, such as a job with benefits and a steady income, or even health insurance.