The History of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. Lotteries to raise money for public works and charitable projects have a much more recent origin. In the early modern period, states adopted lotteries as a way of raising revenue without raising taxes. Lotteries are considered a “painless” form of taxation because the participants are voluntarily spending their own money for the benefit of society. Lottery supporters also claim that lotteries are a good source of revenue for state governments without burdening lower-income people in the economy.

In the US, there are over 186,000 retailers licensed to sell lottery tickets. Most are convenience stores, but some are gas stations, grocery stores, discount and department stores, nonprofit organizations (such as churches and fraternal groups), restaurants, bars and bowling alleys. Some even sell tickets on the Internet. The most popular lottery games include Powerball and Mega Millions, both of which offer multi-million dollar jackpots. Approximately three-fourths of all lottery sales are made via the Internet.

Many states use the lottery as a way of raising funds for a variety of state-owned and operated programs. These programs are intended to promote social welfare, cultural activities, and economic development. Some of the programs funded by lotteries include public education, roads and highways, parks and recreation areas, and health and safety-related initiatives. Lottery revenues have also been used to pay for a wide range of public services, such as prisons and courts.

When first introduced, lottery games were usually little more than traditional raffles. The public would purchase tickets and then wait for a drawing to be held at some future date, often weeks or months away. But beginning in the 1970s, states began to introduce new games that allowed players to win instantly. These scratch-off tickets were generally cheaper to play and offered smaller prizes, but still substantial sums of money.

As a result, the number of lottery players rose rapidly. In the US, in 2003, there were about 25 million active players, representing a large proportion of the population. In the same year, lottery revenues topped $25 billion. Despite these impressive numbers, the popularity of the lottery has slowed recently, partly because of state budget deficits and the proliferation of other forms of gambling.

Nevertheless, some people remain committed to playing the lottery, especially young, white, middle-class men. A 1996 survey reported that 22% of lottery players believed they would win a prize someday. Lottery promotion campaigns tend to focus on these kinds of players, using the message that winning the lottery is like a game, and that the odds are not so bad that it is unreasonable to risk a small amount in order to gain a large one. In reality, however, the odds of winning are quite low. Moreover, these promotions are designed to obscure the regressivity of the lottery by concealing its high costs for some players. The real issue is that people do not understand the odds of winning, and this misconception contributes to irrational gambling behavior.