The History of Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize, such as money or goods, is awarded to people who buy tickets. It is often organized so that a percentage of the profits is donated to good causes. Unlike some other forms of gambling, like casino games, the prizes in lottery contests are usually decided by chance. The history of lotteries is entwined with that of the United States, and it is often seen as a way to generate revenue for public services without raising taxes.

The first state-sponsored lotteries appeared in the early sixteenth century, and the word is probably a calque on Middle Dutch loterie or Middle French loterie, both meaning “action of drawing lots.” These lottery contests raised money for townships, cities, and other localities and were often associated with church reform. Lotteries were popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a number of them raised funds for wars or canals. The Continental Congress used lotteries to fund the Revolutionary Army, and Alexander Hamilton embraced them, saying that “everybody will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the opportunity of considerable gain.”

In the nineteenth century, however, the national mood changed. The nation’s tax revolt intensified, and public opinion turned against state-sponsored gambling. As a result, lottery advocates began to modify their message. They stopped arguing that the money lottery revenues would raise for states could float all a state’s budget items and instead started focusing on one line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks. This approach allowed them to make the case that a vote for a lottery was a vote for a certain kind of government.

The new lottery advocates also dismissed ethical objections to the idea, arguing that, since gamblers were going to gamble anyway, governments should at least pocket the proceeds. That logic was flawed, of course, but it did give moral cover to those who approved of the practice. It also obscured the fact that the lottery was a regressive tax and that, as Cohen writes, most state lottery money goes to poorer people than other state taxes do.

In recent years, the popularity of lottery has waned. Its proponents have switched to different arguments, trying to emphasize the social benefits of a lottery and making it more appealing to people who may not otherwise be interested in gambling. They’ve tried to promote the lottery as a way of helping children and other social services, and they’ve begun to target specific groups of potential lottery players—for example, veterans or college students. But these strategies have not been particularly successful. The public remains skeptical of the social benefits of lottery gambling, and the percentage of proceeds that go to charity has remained relatively low. In a time when states are struggling to keep their heads above water, it’s unlikely that they’ll abandon the lottery altogether.