A lottery is a competition based on chance, in which tickets are sold and prizes, usually money or goods, are given to those who have numbers drawn at random. It is sometimes used as a means of raising funds for the state or other charitable organizations. The word is derived from the Middle Dutch word lot, meaning “casting lots.” The practice of drawing or casting lots as a means of decision-making or (in early use) divination is known as a sorte.

In the United States, the vast majority of lottery revenue—excluding prize winnings—ends up in state coffers. The way that state governments use these dollars, however, is not always a matter of public record. Most lotteries are run as a business, putting the pressure of maximizing revenues over the overall public welfare and, in particular, over the impact on the poor and problem gamblers.

The big question, then, is whether the system is able to generate enough profit to cover all of its overhead costs and to reward workers for their efforts. The answer is unclear, and a great deal depends on how much people play. Although 50 percent of Americans buy a lottery ticket at least once a year, the number of players is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. The majority of these players buy a single ticket and do not win the top prize. This uneven distribution of playing reflects the fact that the lottery is not a popular source of income for most Americans.