The History of the Lottery


The lottery is an omnipresent part of American life, raising billions of dollars each year. It is a fixture of state budgets, and states promote it as a means to fund everything from education to the police department. The public sees it as a win-win situation: States get the revenue they need without raising taxes, and individuals spend money they might not otherwise have spent on something they may or may not have won. But it’s a complicated picture.

Lotteries, like all gambling, are rooted in ancient history. In the Old Testament, Moses was instructed to conduct a lottery to divide land among Israel’s people, and Roman emperors used them to give away property and slaves. Modern state lotteries first appeared in the United States in the early 1800s, and were embraced by many because they offered a lower-risk alternative to investing their own money in businesses or in real estate. They were also seen as a way to obtain “voluntary” tax payments that could help pay for things the government would otherwise have to raise through a tax or fee.

Today, state lotteries operate similarly to private ones: a state legitimises a monopoly; establishes a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a slice of the profits); starts out with a small number of relatively simple games; and then, prompted by pressure to increase revenues, progressively adds new games over time. The result is that a game that started out as a simple raffle has, over time, become a complex muddle of games and prizes, some of which are more popular than others.

Critics of the lottery point to several problems, including misleading advertising and false promises that winning the jackpot will make you rich. They also criticise the reliance on recurring revenues, the lack of clear definitions and standards for selecting winners, and the fact that some prize amounts are paid out over long periods of time, allowing inflation to significantly diminish their current value.

It’s no secret that lottery players tend to be poorer as a group than non-lottery players. This is a consequence of both the low risk-to-reward ratio and the tendency of lottery players to purchase multiple tickets, which increases the likelihood of losing a substantial sum. Moreover, lottery players as a group contribute billions in tax receipts that could be going toward their retirement or college tuition.

A key issue in state lotteries is the degree to which the popularity of a particular game is influenced by the state’s actual financial circumstances. In an era of anti-tax sentiment, it is tempting for states to promote the lottery as a source of painless revenue that can be used to avoid steep tax increases or cuts in essential services. But the reality is that this revenue is a thorny issue, and one that merits close scrutiny.