The History of the Lottery


A contest in which tickets are sold and the winners are selected by random drawing. The prizes vary but often include cash or goods. Lotteries are sometimes conducted as a way of raising money for public or private ventures. The term is also used to describe the process by which a person or group gains something limited in supply, such as kindergarten admission at a prestigious school or units in a subsidized housing project.

In colonial America, the lottery was an important means of distributing land and slaves to settlers. It was a popular fundraising method in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is estimated that Americans spent about a trillion dollars on tickets in the last century.

Until recently, the federal government did not regulate state-run lotteries, but since 1996 it has been possible for people to purchase lottery tickets in the same places where they buy cigarettes and gasoline. Increasingly, state lotteries offer a variety of games and are characterized by high-stakes jackpots. It is easy to understand why they attract people who want to win a big prize, but many players are unaware of the odds against winning.

The first recorded lotteries were in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, when towns raffled tickets to raise funds for building town fortifications and charity for the poor. They became popular in England after Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery, designating its profits for “reparation of the Havens and Strength of the Realme.”

Throughout history, governments have employed lots to make decisions, from determining the fate of prisoners who have been sentenced to death by hanging to choosing ambassadors to foreign countries. In the seventeenth century, Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to raise money to buy cannons for Philadelphia and George Washington promoted the sale of slaves by lottery in the Virginia Gazette.

The popularity of the lottery in the late twentieth century coincided with a period of steep economic decline for working people. The gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security eroded, health-care costs soared, and the long-standing promise that hard work and education would lead to financial stability ceased to be true for most people. It is not surprising, then, that so many people have taken up the lottery as a way of escaping their troubles.

Defenders of the lottery argue that people are gambling anyway, so governments might as well collect the proceeds. But this logic has limits. For example, it would imply that governments should sell heroin, too, because many people already use it for relief. It also ignores the fact that lotteries are responsive to economic fluctuations; ticket sales increase as incomes fall, unemployment rates rise, and poverty rates increase. And it is no coincidence that lottery advertising is most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately black or Latino. Ultimately, the argument for the lottery is just another form of class warfare.

Posted in: Gambling