The History of the Lottery

Lotteries are games in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of prizes. They can be a form of entertainment or raise money for public causes. They may be played individually or by groups. Prizes may be cash, goods or services. In the United States, state-sanctioned lotteries are a popular source of revenue. In some states, a portion of the proceeds goes to education. The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate. The first lottery in modern times was held in England in 1569. The game spread to America with European colonists, despite strict Protestant prohibitions against gambling.

Early lottery games were mostly private, a way for rich people to pass on their fortunes or to divine God’s will. The casting of lots is a Biblical tradition (Nero was a fan), and ancient Greeks and Romans also used it to distribute property and slaves. In Europe, state-sponsored lotteries emerged in the fifteenth century, as towns sought to raise money to fortify defenses and aid the poor. Francis I of France authorized a number of lotteries in the 1500s.

In the United States, the idea of a national lottery gained momentum in the nineteen seventies and eighties, when state budgets were reeling from inflation and a sharp decline in real wages. In those years, the American dream of a secure middle class disintegrated. The gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security were slashed, health-care costs rose, and the old promise that hard work and education would allow children to outperform their parents was eclipsed by economic uncertainty.

With public anger over the state’s financial crisis growing, pro-lottery advocates rethought their pitch. Rather than argue that a state’s lottery funds could cover a broad range of government services, they began to focus on a single line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or parks or veterans’ assistance. This new focus made legalizing the lottery easier for politicians to sell.

The argument also defanged ethical objections that people were already betting on chance and, by extension, that governments ought to make a profit from their efforts. Lotteries, these advocates argued, were just another form of gambling.

Statistically, the odds of winning the lottery are very slim–there is a higher likelihood of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than that of hitting a jackpot. But the fact remains that, in an era of irrational wealth fantasies and declining economic security, many Americans will do almost anything to win a big prize.