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The History of the Lottery

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The lottery is a form of gambling in which a drawing of numbers determines a prize. Its popularity in the United States and other countries has exploded over the last century, with state lotteries now raising billions in revenue. The lion’s share of the proceeds are used to fund education. But critics say that lotteries are addictive, promote illegal gambling, and are a major regressive tax on the poor.

The use of the casting of lots for a variety of purposes has a long history, and even today the lottery remains popular as an entertainment, a method of distributing prizes at dinner parties, and as a means to settle inheritance disputes. In the 16th century, European lotteries began distributing money as prizes. The first recorded public lottery to offer tickets with money as the prize was organized in 1466 by the city of Bruges, and was intended for municipal repairs and helping the poor.

Most state lotteries are established in a similar fashion: the government legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the profits); starts operations with a limited number of relatively simple games, then expands them in response to increasing demand and pressure for revenues. Many state lotteries now offer a large variety of games, including the traditional lottery draw and instant games such as scratch-off tickets.

Once established, lottery revenues typically grow dramatically in the first few years of operation. After that, they level off and sometimes decline. Lotteries respond to this boredom by introducing new games to attract new customers and increase existing revenue.

While the odds of winning a lottery prize are very low, people continue to play, and spend billions on tickets each year. Some people play as part of a syndicate, pooling their small winnings to buy more tickets and improve their chances of winning. Others simply like the chance of getting lucky – or, as one economist puts it, “the desire for an intangible but real payoff.”

The vast majority of lotto players and revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods. Unlike other forms of gambling, which tend to be concentrated in lower-income areas, the lottery is an equalizer, providing an opportunity for middle-class people to enjoy the same chance of winning as wealthier neighbors. In fact, the affluent are more likely to play the lottery than lower-income people, and their winnings are usually much larger.

Critics charge that the state’s desire to increase revenue through lotteries conflicts with its responsibility to safeguard the welfare of its residents. Lotteries are alleged to encourage addictive gambling behavior, regressively taxes the poor, and lure teenagers into illegal activities. They also are criticized for promoting unrealistic expectations about the life-changing impact of winning, inflating the value of prize amounts by paying jackpots over a period of 20 years (with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding the actual current value), and creating an overall perception that winning the lottery is easy, when in reality it is not.