The History of Lotteries

Lotteries are a kind of gambling where people pay to have the chance to win something that, for many, is incredibly difficult to come by. They’re big business, with prize money that often runs into the hundreds of millions. And despite — or perhaps because of — the odds of winning, a lot of people play them. They’ve convinced themselves that it’s their last, best, or only shot at a better life. And they’re doing it knowingly, buying tickets with their hard-earned cash.

The history of lotteries stretches back centuries. Moses was instructed to hold a lottery to distribute land in the Old Testament; Roman emperors used them to give away slaves and property; and colonial-era Americans used them to finance everything from paving streets to building Harvard and Yale. Today, lotteries make their money by selling tickets for a drawing in which a number or numbers are selected, and the winners receive prizes ranging from cash to goods. Several states, including New York, offer state-licensed lotteries.

People buy tickets in order to have a chance at the top prizes, such as houses and cars. They also buy them to make their own money, such as by putting a few dollars into the “Earn More” pool or “Take Home More” pool. The majority of players, however, are playing for the grand prizes: money and other goods. In addition to the money that they pay for their chances, these lottery players also pay sales tax and other charges on their purchases. The total amount they spend largely covers the prizes that they have the chance of winning, leaving a small percentage for the state to keep as profit.

When a lottery is established, the debates that surround it usually center on how desirable such a gambling mechanism should be. Once it’s in place, however, the discussion shifts to other issues. These include problems with compulsive gambling and the alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups.

The fact is, lottery officials have a powerful constituency: convenience store owners (the lotteries’ primary distributors); lottery suppliers (their heavy contributions to state political campaigns are well documented); teachers in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and legislators who quickly become accustomed to the revenue stream.

In this environment, the lottery is a classic example of how public policy gets made: piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview. The resulting system is driven by the interests of a broad range of specific groups, and those groups’ demands tend to outpace the needs of the general population. Consequently, lottery officials are able to operate with an enormous amount of autonomy. This independence makes them resistant to the kinds of criticism that would be directed at other public policies, such as the regressive effect of sports betting. That’s a shame, because we could use a little less of that in our lives. We’ll talk about ways to change this next time. See you then!