The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase lots that are then randomly drawn to win a prize. In the United States, the majority of state lotteries award prizes in cash, but some also award goods or services. Regardless of how they are run, all lotteries must be fair and have the same odds for every ticket purchased. In addition, a lottery may not be used to raise funds for illegal activities.

The history of lotteries goes back thousands of years. The casting of lots is recorded in the Bible, and lotteries were common in the Roman Empire (Nero was a big fan) and the early American colonies. Today, the lottery is one of the world’s largest entertainment events, with sales in excess of US$40 billion a year.

In Cohen’s telling, modern lottery popularity began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. Due to a combination of factors including population growth, rising inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, many states found themselves in a precarious financial position in which maintaining their existing social safety net programs became increasingly difficult without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were very unpopular with voters.

States that already had lotteries saw their revenues increase, and states that didn’t have them jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, according to the National Association of State Lottery Directors (NASPL), by 1990 more than half of the states in the United States had started a lottery.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence that the ancient Chinese used lottery to distribute land, this game is thought to be the oldest in the world. The first recorded lottery games, involving tickets for sale with money as the prize, appear in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where they were used to raise money to build town fortifications and to help the poor.

A defining feature of most modern lotteries is the pool from which prize winners are selected. From this pool, a percentage is deducted for administrative costs and profits, and another percentage is awarded to the winning tickets. The rest of the pool is then returned to the bettors in a proportion that varies depending on the type of lottery and its cultural context.

While critics of the lottery often describe it as “a tax on stupid people,” its sales are influenced by economic fluctuations, with ticket purchases increasing as incomes fall and unemployment rates rise. In addition, as with all commercial products, lottery advertising is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor or black or Latino. Ultimately, lottery spending is a response to human hedonistic impulses, and the chance to become a millionaire can provide an escape from the daily grind of poverty. This is why the lottery attracts so many people. And why, despite all of the warnings, it continues to thrive.