The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a game in which participants pay a small amount of money in exchange for the chance to win a large sum of money. Its popularity owes partly to the fact that it’s easy to play: You can buy tickets at gas stations, convenience stores, and even some churches. And it’s also appealing because it offers the possibility of instant riches, a fantasy that plays well in our age of inequality and limited social mobility.

The origins of lotteries are unclear, but they may date back to ancient times. There’s a biblical reference to Moses dividing land by lot (Numbers 26:55-56) and, in Roman times, the emperors used to give away property and slaves in lottery-like draws during dinner parties. But it wasn’t until the nineteen-sixties that the lottery really became a phenomenon. This was when growing awareness about all the money that could be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding caused by rising population growth and inflation. State officials faced the choice of raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were unpopular with voters.

So, lawmakers turned to the lottery as a source of voluntary taxes. And it worked. Using high-profile advertising campaigns, they touted the benefits of lotteries, such as the idea that everybody will be rich someday. They also wildly inflated the impact of lottery revenues on state budgets. In California, for example, where a lottery initiative was passed after an extensive public campaign, the money raised from ticket sales now accounts for roughly five per cent of the state education budget.

People who play the lottery know their odds of winning are long, but they still feel compelled to purchase tickets. It might be because they’re in denial or because of some sort of psychological dependency, which is nothing to be ashamed of. But, as we’ll see, there are better ways to spend your money than on a slim chance of getting rich quick.

The first recorded lottery to offer tickets with a cash prize was in the Low Countries during the 15th century. The word “lottery” probably came from Middle Dutch loterie, which is a calque on the Middle French word loterie, meaning the action of drawing lots. The earliest records of publicly sponsored lotteries in England come from the mid-16th century, but private games were popular for much longer. The early state lotteries were heavily promoted in newspapers and on billboards. The jackpots for the big draws grew to sky-high amounts, which generated enormous publicity and boosted sales. In the modern era, lottery promotions have become increasingly sophisticated and manipulative, with the goal of keeping players hooked on the game. The strategy isn’t all that different from that of tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers—it’s just not normally done under government auspices.