The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which participants pay for the privilege of entering a drawing to win a prize. Prizes are usually cash or goods. In most lotteries, the total prize pool is divided into a number of large and smaller prizes, with one or more very high-value prizes offered. A lottery may be organized for a variety of purposes, from promoting public works to distributing charity aid. It is also used as a form of entertainment. Lottery draws have a long history, dating back to ancient times; the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has been recorded from antiquity, including several instances in the Bible.

The modern era of state-sponsored lotteries began in New Hampshire in 1964 and has since spread to virtually every state. The arguments for and against their adoption, as well as the structure of the resulting lotteries, have shown remarkable uniformity.

As Cohen explains, the resurgence of lotteries began when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state budgeting. In the nineteen-sixties, states with generous social safety nets found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both options wildly unpopular with voters.

State governments adopted lotteries as a way to collect massive amounts of revenue from the general public without having to increase taxes or cut services. They typically legislated a state-run monopoly, set up an independent agency to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of profits), began operations with a modest number of simple games, and then grew them rapidly by adding new offerings. As revenues rose, advocates were able to dismiss long-standing ethical objections to gambling and argue that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the proceeds.

Early lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with players buying tickets for a drawing at some future date. By the fourteen-hundreds, however, it had become common in the Low Countries to use lotteries to raise funds for town defenses and, later, for public works. By the sixteenth century, it was even used to distribute charity aid.

In the modern era, lottery games have grown in size and complexity, but they retain their broad appeal to the public. The vast majority of Americans report playing the lottery at least once a year, and most states draw millions of entries each week. In addition, a considerable percentage of the public plays legalized lotteries online.

In addition to the general public, lotteries develop extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who are the lottery’s usual vendors); ticket suppliers (who contribute heavily to state political campaigns); teachers (in states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly grow accustomed to the extra income). As such, state legislatures have developed a strong incentive to support the lotteries.