In modern times, lotteries are often used to raise money for various state or national projects. They can also be a source of entertainment or an opportunity to win valuable prizes, such as cars or houses. Some states also use lotteries to distribute educational grants or to provide services for the elderly or disabled. The lottery has become an integral part of American culture.
In the 17th century it was quite common in the Low Countries to organize public lotteries to collect money for the poor or to raise funds for a wide range of other public usages. These were hailed as a painless form of taxation. The oldest running lotteries are still operated by the Staatsloterij in the Netherlands.
The reason for this popularity was that people were willing to hazard small amounts of money in the hope of a greater gain. Often the prize was not only monetary but could be non-monetary, such as a free concert ticket.
In early America, lotteries were tangled up in the slave trade, often with unpredictable consequences. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and one enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, bought his freedom in a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave revolt. Lotteries formed a rare point of consensus between Thomas Jefferson, who viewed them as little riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would become the essence of a modern lottery: that everybody “would prefer a trifling chance of considerable gain to a great chance of winning nothing.” (Cohen, 2007)