The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random to determine winners. The prize money varies, and a percentage of the total amount bet is taken out for organizational costs and profits. This is the case for both state-run and private lotteries. The basic elements of a lottery are the pool, or collection, of tickets or counterfoils from which winners are selected; a means of recording the identity of each bettors and the amounts they stake; and a procedure for shuffling and extracting winning numbers or symbols. Often, this is done by shaking or tossing the tickets or counterfoils, but more recently computers have been used for this purpose. This is called a randomizing process and is designed to ensure that the selection of winners is truly random.

Historically, the lottery was a popular method for distributing public goods and services. It was especially popular in the Low Countries, where the proceeds helped to finance town fortifications and charity for the poor. In England, in the fourteen-hundreds, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery, designating its profits for the “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets were sold at ten shillings, or about two weeks’ wages for an unskilled worker in those days.

Today, states promote the lottery as a way of raising revenue. But this message obscures the regressive nature of the game. By dangling the prospect of instant riches, it draws people into an expensive habit that will likely take a huge chunk of their disposable incomes. It also promotes a vision of life as a series of unlucky moments, rather than as a long journey toward success and prosperity.

It is not surprising that the lottery has become a staple of American culture. The average person spent more than $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021 alone, and governments have pushed to legalize it at the local level even where it is illegal under the law. But how much of this revenue is really being used for good? And is it worth the costs to those who lose?

For most of its history, the lottery was viewed as a cheap way for states to expand their social safety nets without imposing particularly onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. But as the economy changed, this arrangement began to crumble. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security disappeared, health care costs soared, and many Americans became obsessed with the prospect of hitting a multimillion-dollar jackpot. It was in these decades that the lottery became a centerpiece of our national culture, as state-sponsored advertising campaigns promised that “winning the lottery could rewrite your whole story.” To be sure, it did for some. But for most, the dream of wealth was never fulfilled. And so it is for the rest.