The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a major source of state revenue. But it’s a peculiar kind of tax, in that the money doesn’t come out of people’s paychecks like a regular tax does. Instead, it comes out of their pocketbooks by buying a ticket. That means they feel a kind of civic duty to support the lottery, or at least the idea behind it: that by paying for a ticket, they’re also supporting something good, such as education. But the reality is that most of the money goes into prize funds, and a relatively small percentage of tickets is used to fund governmental programs.

The practice of making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long history—it’s attested to in the Bible, for instance, when Moses instructed Israelites to divide land by lot; in Roman times, Nero used lotteries to give away property, slaves, and even his own garments after he was crucified. The first public lotteries to offer tickets with cash prizes were recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century, and they helped finance town fortifications and help the poor.

Historically, when states decide to adopt a lottery they start by legitimizing the monopoly; creating an independent state agency or public corporation to run it; and then beginning operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Then, as the demand for tickets grows, they increase the size and complexity of the offerings. In some cases, they lift the odds of winning—one-in-three million vs. one-in-three hundred million, for example—and in others they raise the jackpots.

This pattern of growth, aided by the advertising tactics and marketing strategies of the lottery industry, has kept most state lotteries growing in spite of the fact that the chances of winning are so low. It’s counterintuitive, but the more the odds get worse, the more people want to play. That’s why state lottery commissions employ everything from glitzy advertising to the design of the tickets themselves, all designed to keep people coming back for more.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, this obsession with unimaginable wealth—and the dream that it could be theirs if they only bought enough lottery tickets—corresponded with a decline in financial security for most Americans. The income gap widened, pensions and job security were eroded, health-care costs rose, and our long-standing national promise that education and hard work would make them richer than their parents was no longer true for many. In that climate, lottery advocates began focusing less on the lottery as a way to float most of a state’s budget and more on its ability to raise revenue for a single line item, invariably some form of government service—usually education, but sometimes veterans’ care, public parks, or aid for the poor. These newer pitches were a lot easier to sell.