The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay for the chance to win a prize, often a large sum of money. State and federal governments often run lotteries to raise money for public projects. People buy tickets for a set amount of money, and the winner is chosen by a random drawing. People are drawn to the prospect of winning a large amount of money for a small investment, and the lottery has become an important source of revenue for state governments.

The concept of lotteries dates back a long way. The practice of distributing property and other goods among the population by means of a drawing of lots has ancient roots, with dozens of examples in the Bible and other ancient texts. The casting of lots for various purposes, including choosing slaves and even the distribution of property among a family’s members, was a common practice in ancient Greece and Rome.

Modern state-run lotteries are modeled after those of European countries, particularly England and France. In Europe, the first lotteries were organized to raise funds for town fortifications and other public works in the 15th century. A number of French cities established lotteries in the 1500s, and Louis XIV encouraged his courtiers to play for personal profit.

In the United States, the first state-run lottery was established in New Hampshire in 1964, and was followed by a number of other states in the 1970s. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. Most are operated by a government agency or public corporation; some are privatized, with private firms running the games in exchange for a portion of the proceeds.

Advocates of state-run lotteries have argued that they offer an alternative to direct taxation by attracting voters who spend their money voluntarily for the benefit of the public good. Critics have questioned whether lotteries promote compulsive gambling and other problems, and are at cross-purposes with the state’s broader fiscal policy goals.

Despite the many arguments for and against state-run lotteries, the actual operations of the majority of them have been quite similar. The process of adopting a lottery begins with the state legitimizing the activity through statute; then, it establishes a government agency or public corporation to run it; starts operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to continuous pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its offerings.

As a result, the lottery has evolved into a complex institution. The resulting diversity has shifted debates from the general desirability of a lottery to concerns about specific features of the operation of individual lotteries, such as their targeting of lower-income individuals and their role in perpetuating a cycle of gambling addiction. The evolution of the lottery has also prompted questions about how much control the state should have over its operations.