The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people buy numbered tickets. Several numbers are then drawn, and the people who have those numbers on their ticket win a prize. If you describe something as a lottery, you mean that it depends entirely on luck or chance. For example, deciding which judges are assigned to a case is always a bit of a lottery.

In the United States, state-sponsored lotteries are common. In 2021, Americans spent more than $100 billion on them, making it the most popular form of gambling in America. Some groups are calling for state governments to stop promoting the game, arguing that it’s not worth the cost to society. Others are urging them to continue, claiming that the revenues generated by lotteries can help fund schools and other programs without raising taxes.

Governments have long used lotteries to raise funds, with the first examples recorded in keno slips from the Chinese Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. These early lotteries were not like today’s games, however, as they required payment in exchange for the opportunity to win a prize. Modern lotteries are typically much simpler, relying on the random selection of numbers to determine winners and losers. The word lottery comes from the French verb lotere, which means “to draw lots.”

In Europe, the first state-sponsored lotteries were established in 15th century Burgundy and Flanders as towns sought to raise money for defending their cities or helping the poor. The popularity of these lotteries spread to England and America. By 1832, they had become so popular that the Boston Mercantile Journal reported that 420 public lotteries had been held that year alone. Private lotteries were also common in both countries, and they helped finance the building of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, Brown, and William & Mary, among other institutions.

Although the majority of lottery players are middle-class and upper-middle class, the game is regressive in terms of who wins and loses. Those who play the lottery spend a higher percentage of their income on it than do the general population, and their purchases are disproportionately made by lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male residents. In addition to being a source of entertainment, the lottery gives millions of Americans hope that they too can get rich one day and indulge in their own meritocratic fantasies.

The regressivity of the lottery is obscured by the way its marketing is conducted. In addition to telling potential players that the lottery is a fun and exciting experience, marketers have also promoted it as an opportunity for people to escape from dreary economic times. While that message hasn’t proven especially persuasive, it may change as states struggle with declining revenue streams. The question of whether the benefits of lottery sales outweigh the costs is a difficult one to answer. It’s one that should be discussed openly, rather than swept under the rug of political expediency.