The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery

Lotteries are a form of gambling in which prize money is awarded by chance. They can be used for a variety of purposes, including raising funds for public works and charity projects. The lottery was common in the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan—and it is attested to in biblical times, when people cast lots for everything from who gets the clothes off Jesus after his Crucifixion to who will get the inheritance of their parents.

Today, state lotteries are much more sophisticated and offer prizes in the millions of dollars. But they still depend on the same basic principle: that people are willing to spend a small amount of money in order to try to win a large sum of money. In fact, the lottery has become so popular that many Americans have little else to spend their money on—as Cohen puts it, “the lottery is a national addiction.”

The word lottery probably comes from the Italian noun lotto, which means fate or destiny. It was also used in Middle Dutch as a synonym for fyristy, or the drawing of lots; the Middle High German word lottie was borrowed into English as lottery. The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were drawn in the early seventeenth century to raise funds for wars and other public works. The Continental Congress, for example, created a lottery in 1776 to help finance the American Revolution. Other public lotteries were used in colonial America to build roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and wharves. Privately organized lotteries helped to sell goods and properties for more than they would command in a regular sale.

Until the 1970s, most lotteries were little more than traditional raffles. Those that existed required the public to buy tickets for a drawing at some future date—weeks or months away. But innovation in the industry gave rise to a new type of lottery, known as an instant game. This entailed the printing of numbers on tickets, which were then matched to winning combinations in a drum or other device. Instant games quickly became more popular than traditional lottery games.

The popularity of the lottery has fluctuated with economic conditions. As the economy worsened in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, more and more people began to play. This increased participation coincided with a decline in family wealth, rising unemployment and poverty rates, and the erosion of retirement and health-care benefits for working Americans. It also corresponded with the end of the nation’s long-standing promise that hard work and education would guarantee prosperity for all.

In the United States, there are more than a hundred state-sponsored lotteries and numerous privately run games. The winners of the big jackpots are often buried under staggering tax bills that can drain millions from their pockets. The rest of the prize money is distributed to the losers. The majority of lottery winners are men, and the games are disproportionately promoted in communities that are poor, black, or Latino. Although lottery spending tends to decrease with income, as with all commercial products, exposure to advertising increases it.