The History of the Lottery


In its most common form, lottery is a game in which players pay for a ticket or tickets, select a group of numbers, or have machines randomly spit them out, and win prizes if they match those numbers. The prize may be money, goods or services. People play the lottery for everything from a new car to a vacation. The most common lottery is for cash or goods, but other lotteries award units in subsidized housing blocks, kindergarten placements, or even sports draft picks.

The history of the lottery is long and varied. The casting of lots for decisions and destinies has ancient roots-Nero was a big fan-and the first recorded public lotteries to offer prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, for things like town fortifications and helping the poor. But it was not until after World War II that state governments began using lotteries as a way to increase revenue without raising taxes.

At the time, states saw their lotteries as a way to expand social safety nets without the political risk of increasing taxes in an anti-tax environment. They were also viewed as a way to get around the problem of corruption in the old private lotteries that had long plagued the gambling industry.

Early lotteries were simple: players bought tickets for a drawing at a date in the future and, if they won, collected the prize money. Modern state lotteries, however, are much more complex. They have many different games and the winnings can be quite large. Lottery revenues grow rapidly after a state begins a lottery, but then begin to level off and, in some cases, decline. In order to maintain or grow revenues, the state must introduce new games regularly.

The story Shirley Jackson wrote in 1958 called The Lottery illustrates many of the sins of humanity. The story takes place in a remote American village and depicts the blind following of outdated traditions and customs. Jackson shows how ruthless and cruel human beings can be.

Despite the odds of winning being extremely slim, there is still a great deal of interest in playing the lottery. In fact, 50 percent of Americans buy a ticket or two per year. But the distribution of players is highly uneven: It is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite and male. A 2008 experimental study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that the reason lower-income people disproportionately play the lottery is not ignorance or cognitive errors. It is because they believe that the lottery offers a uniquely level playing field.

Although it is possible to play the lottery legally in most states, people can get into legal trouble for doing so. Depending on where you live, it is illegal to buy a ticket if you are under age 21 or to use a phony identity to purchase one. In addition, some states have rules against buying a ticket with a check that has been written on an account that is closed or frozen.