The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people pay for a chance to win a prize. The prize can be money, goods or services. The game is based on chance and the rules are regulated by federal law. Lottery tickets must be sold by licensed operators. There are also rules for how much a prize can be. The chances of winning vary according to how many tickets are sold and the prices of the tickets. The odds of winning may be higher or lower than other types of gambling.

In the early eighteenth century, when the United States was a young country with a long history of tax revolts, state governments began to look for ways to raise money without enraging voters. In 1964, New Hampshire started the modern era of state lotteries with its first jackpot; 13 more states introduced lotteries in the next few years.

When state lotteries first appeared, they were often marketed as a way to benefit the poor. It was not a new idea; the casting of lots for decisions and fortunes has a long history (Nero was fond of them, for example) and is found in biblical texts as well. Some states, like Virginia in the seventeenth century and South Carolina in the nineteenth, used them to distribute money for civic improvements. Others, like Massachusetts in the nineteenth, promoted them as a means to help the poor.

The lottery gained broad support because it was seen as a way to fund government programs without raising taxes. This argument still holds true today, although studies have shown that the objective fiscal condition of a state has little bearing on whether it adopts a lottery.

State officials, who run the lotteries, argue that they are an important source of revenue that benefits the public in the form of education and other public good. They also point to research showing that lottery sales rise when incomes fall, unemployment climbs, and poverty rates increase. They also report that sales increase as advertisements for the lottery are placed in neighborhood stores and in communities disproportionately represented by minorities. Lottery defenders sometimes cast critics as “taxing on the stupid,” but this argument is misleading: It suggests that players do not understand how unlikely it is for them to win, or that they enjoy playing anyway. In fact, as Cohen notes, the craze for the lottery coincided with a decline in financial security for most Americans: Incomes fell, pensions and health-care costs rose, and the old promise that hard work would lead to a secure retirement and comfortable children’s lives vanished. This decline was accompanied by an obsession with the dream of unimaginable wealth.