The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people place bets on numbers. The winner of a lottery gets a large amount of money. Most states allow lotteries and many have them running regularly. The winners of a lottery are chosen by chance. People can also choose to let a computer pick the numbers for them. This is a popular option with modern lottery games. The odds of winning are very low, but people do win.

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. Public lotteries, however, are of much more recent origin. The first was organized by Augustus Caesar for municipal repairs in Rome, and the earliest public lotteries distributed prize money to a limited number of ticket holders. Privately-organized lotteries became common in England and the American colonies in the seventeenth century. The early colonial lotteries were important sources of funds for various projects, including building the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first church and supplying a battery of guns for the defense of Philadelphia.

By the late twentieth century, many states had adopted lotteries. The principal argument used in promoting these lotteries was that they provided state governments with a “painless” source of revenue. Politicians saw this as a way to reduce taxes and attract voters. The public, for its part, viewed the state lotteries as a “free tax.” The lottery was thus seen as an alternative to paying higher taxes and cutting government services, which would have been unpopular among voters.

There were, however, some ethical concerns about allowing the state to pocket profits from a gambling enterprise. Many white voters, for example, thought that state-run gambling was a tool to draw black numbers players and that the proceeds from those players were likely to be spent on social services that the whites did not want to pay for, such as better schools in the urban areas they had recently fled.

Despite these concerns, the overwhelming majority of states have continued to adopt lotteries, and the number of participants continues to rise. The lottery industry has a well-established political constituency. It consists of convenience store operators (a significant source of the revenues); lottery suppliers (who donate heavily to state political campaigns); teachers (in states where the revenue is earmarked for education); and, of course, the general public. Unlike most other forms of gambling, lotteries enjoy broad popular approval, even in times of economic stress. The reason for this broad popularity is the degree to which the lottery’s proceeds are seen as benefiting a particular public good, such as education. This has proven to be a powerful argument, especially in states with high levels of public debt. Nevertheless, studies have shown that the actual fiscal condition of a state does not seem to affect whether or when a state adopts a lottery. This suggests that the public’s broader desire for a sense of fairness may be a more important motivation than the fear of increased taxes.

Posted in: Gambling