The History of the Lottery


Hundreds of millions of dollars are wagered on lottery games every week in the United States. Some players play to have fun while others believe that the lottery is their only way out of poverty. In fact, lottery money helps to pay for many state services including education, health, welfare, and prisons. The idea of lotteries has a long history in human society. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and distribute the land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries for slaves and property. In the United States, lotteries gained popularity in the nineteenth century. They were initially met with great resistance from Christians, but by the nineteen sixties they had become a common source of state revenue.

The success of state-run lotteries largely depends on public perceptions and attitudes towards gambling, which vary across socio-economic groups. A recent survey found that whereas middle-class Americans consider lotteries to be “morally acceptable,” lower-income people see them as a tax on the poor. This is because low-income people are more likely to gamble, and they tend to spend larger amounts of money on lottery tickets than higher-income Americans.

Cohen argues that the rise of the modern lotteries began in the nineteen seventies, when growing awareness of the large profits to be made from gambling collided with a crisis in state government funding. Faced with rising population growth, inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and a massive social safety net, many state governments were finding it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting programs. Both of these options were unpopular with voters.

So, state politicians and the public turned to the lotteries, which provided a painless source of revenue and the appearance of increased efficiency and accountability. This helped to dispel long-standing ethical objections to state-sponsored gambling and shifted the debate away from the morality of gambling itself toward other issues.

The first recorded lotteries, in which prizes were money-based, were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. They were a popular means of raising money to build walls and town fortifications, as well as to help the poor. The word lottery is thought to be derived from the Dutch noun lot, which may have been taken from Middle French loterie, which itself is probably a calque of Old Dutch loterij “action of drawing lots.”

Today, state lotteries continue to prosper and attract millions of customers. They have cultivated specific constituencies, such as convenience store operators (who benefit from the sales of scratch-off tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions from these companies to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly get accustomed to the easy money). In addition, they have developed an incalculable reliance on advertising, which commonly promotes misleading information about the odds of winning the jackpot and inflates the value of the prize by comparing it to previous jackpots.