History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize. The casting of lots for decisions and destinies has an ancient history—Nero was a fan—and is attested to in many cultures and religions, including the Bible (from choosing kings to determining who will keep Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion). Whether a game of chance for money or a religious tool, lotteries have become popular around the world. They are a feature of public life in the United States and numerous other countries, and they raise billions of dollars every year.

Despite their widespread popularity, lotteries remain controversial because of the many ways they promote a particular vision of society and human nature. In his short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson portrays the lottery as a way for people to mistreat each other, with no consequences. This evil is portrayed as common and expected in the community, as it seems to be a natural part of their lives. This story is a critique of the hypocrisy and evil nature of humans.

In most cases, a state adopts a lottery by legislating a monopoly for itself; establishing a government agency or public corporation to run the games; starting with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then progressively expanding them as demand increases. The lottery is not just a revenue generator for the state; it also serves to shape public expectations about gambling and the social responsibility of citizens.

Early in the lottery’s history, legalization advocates argued that it would float most of a state’s budget and make it possible to get rid of other taxes. When that proved a falsehood, they shifted their strategy, insisting that the lottery would fund one line item, invariably a popular service like education or elder care. This approach made it easy to convince voters that a vote for the lottery was not a vote against education or parks, and it also made it easier for them to win approval by legislatures and referendums.

As lottery play grew, officials realized that the odds of winning were not a deterrent to gamblers. As Alexander Hamilton put it, “the majority of the people of any country would prefer a little chance of gaining much to a great chance of gaining nothing.” In response, they lifted jackpot caps, lowered minimum prize amounts and added more numbers to the drawing—increasing the odds to something closer to one in three million.

Lottery spending varies by income, with those in lower-income households playing more than others. In general, however, lottery revenues tend to spike immediately after they begin and then level off or even decline. This pattern is similar to that of other commercial products, such as cigarettes or automobiles, which generate strong initial sales and then decline after a few years of steady use. Despite these declines, the regressive nature of lotteries persists because of the two key messages that they convey. The first is that the state needs your money, and the second is that playing the lottery is a fun and enjoyable experience.