The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine winners. Various states offer lotteries, and the money raised is used for public purposes. For example, it is used to finance schools and infrastructure projects. The lottery is also a popular method of raising funds for charity. Many people play for money or goods, but there are also those who play for a chance to win the big jackpot. The odds of winning are extremely low, but people keep playing because of the entertainment value and the possibility that they will become rich.

Lotteries are popular with politicians because they raise revenue for state services without onerous taxes on the middle class or working classes. They can be seen as “budgetary miracles,” explains Cohen, which appear to create dollars seemingly out of thin air. During the immediate post-World War II period, this arrangement allowed states to expand their social safety nets without significantly increasing taxes. But by the early 1960s this system began to crumble, thanks in large part to inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. The result was a backlash against taxes that forced legislators to rethink how state government was funded and led to the proliferation of lotteries.

Often, defenders of the lottery argue that people who play are “taxing themselves on stupidity,” that is, they don’t understand how unlikely it is to win, or they enjoy the game anyway and are happy with what they pay in a tiny sliver of hope. But this view ignores the fact that lottery sales are responsive to economic fluctuations, and sales increase as incomes decline and unemployment rises. It also fails to acknowledge that, even after taxes and advertising costs, state revenues from lottery tickets are a drop in the bucket of state budgets.

The history of the lottery is long and complicated. It started as a type of party game in the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan—and it’s attested to throughout the Bible, where lots are cast for everything from dividing land among Israelites to determining who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion. The first recorded European lotteries to sell tickets and award prizes in the form of money dates back to the fourteenth century, when they were used to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor.

But there was another reason for the popularity of lotteries that had little to do with revenue and much to do with ideology. It was a way for states to promote the idea that their services were not “luxury” but essential, and that it was right that they be publicly financed. This view was particularly attractive in the Northeast, where voters feared that government services might disappear once their state’s debt service was complete. It was also a popular argument among those who believed that, as private citizens, gamblers would have to pay for their drugs whether or not the government sold them, so, in effect, they might as well get something in return.