Historically, lotteries have played an important role in financing a range of public goods and services. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons for the Philadelphia defense during the Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson used one to raise money for the purchase of land in Virginia. Today, state governments run lotteries to raise money for everything from road construction and maintenance to education. In general, public opinion surveys show that people view lotteries as an acceptable means of raising government revenue. Unlike most other forms of gambling, which tend to increase in popularity when the economy is shaky, lottery revenues rise and fall with the overall economic climate.

In the United States, all but two of the 50 states operate lotteries. Most have a large number of players. Lottery play varies by age, gender, race, income, and other factors. For example, the young and old play less frequently than those in the middle age group. Those with higher incomes play more frequently than those with lower incomes. Moreover, lottery play declines with formal education and increases with marital status.

The casting of lots to determine fates and material gain has a long history in human society, dating back to the Bible. However, the modern lottery — where participants pay a small amount to win a larger prize — is relatively recent in Western history. Lotteries have enjoyed broad public support despite their often abysmal odds of winning and the regressive impact on low-income individuals.