The History of the Lottery


Hundreds of thousands of people play the lottery each week in the United States and contribute billions of dollars to state coffers. Some people play for the money, but others believe the lottery is their only shot at a better life. The truth is, though the odds of winning are long, many lottery players simply like gambling and the idea of a big prize. This inextricable human impulse drives lotteries and is, to some degree, coded into the advertising that reaches them.

The first recorded public lotteries to award prizes in the form of cash arose in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Towns used them to raise money for town fortifications and for helping the poor. They were probably preceded by a system of drawing lots to determine the fate of persons and property that was practiced throughout history, including several cases mentioned in the Bible.

Most modern lotteries resemble financial lotteries, with participants purchasing tickets for a chance to win a prize of some kind. The proceeds are then used for a variety of public or private purposes, often for educational institutions.

Lottery proponents argue that they provide a “public service” by raising funds for education and other public goods. They point to the success of New Hampshire’s lottery and to studies showing that state governments’ actual fiscal condition has no bearing on whether or when they introduce a lottery. But these arguments ignore the fact that, once established, lotteries largely operate the same way everywhere. They generate a lot of initial excitement and revenues, then level off or even decline, prompting the introduction of new games to keep revenue up.

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