The History of the Lottery


The practice of determining distributions of property and other rights through the drawing of lots has a long history in human society, ranging from Old Testament instruction to Moses to take a census of Israel’s people and divide land by lot, to Roman emperors giving away slaves by lottery during Saturnalian feasts. Public lottery games became common in Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. They were used to raise money for towns, wars, and public works projects, and private lotteries supported many of the country’s earliest colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary.

State-sponsored lotteries typically legislate a monopoly for the game, establish a state agency or public corporation to run it (or license a private firm in return for a share of profits), begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games, and then, due to pressure for additional revenue, progressively expand the size and complexity of their operations. Almost all states have some form of a lottery.

In the United States, the emergence of the modern lottery began with New Hampshire in 1964. Inspired by its positive experience, New York followed in 1966. Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia have operating lotteries.

Despite their popularity, lotteries are controversial for several reasons. For one, they contribute to an unhealthy relationship with gambling. The amount of money that can be won in the lottery is enormous and a jackpot prize can be a powerful incentive for people to play. But in order to win, players must know the odds of winning and make informed decisions based on mathematics rather than superstitions or quick picks.

Another major problem is that state governments are compelled to promote an activity from which they profit and face constant pressures to increase the size of their prizes. This can have a devastating effect on state finances and is often motivated by the desire to attract a bigger audience to a particular game or to create an image of being a big winner, particularly in an antitax era.

A third problem is that the lottery is not a very efficient way of raising large amounts of money. It requires a lot of work to generate the high winnings of some lottery games, and most winners do not keep all of the prize money. In addition, the lottery can be misleading when it comes to its advertising, which often presents a rosy picture of how easy it is to win a large prize, and inflates the value of prizes by using an inflated interest rate and inflation. A fourth problem is that the lottery can be addictive, as people are tempted to try to overcome their innate aversion to risk by investing in an unwise manner. This can be especially damaging for the children of lottery winners, whose financial futures may be ruined by such a foolish investment. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of lottery addiction.