The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to the holders of certain numbers drawn at random. Lotteries are usually conducted by state governments or private organizations to raise money for public purposes. They may also be used to determine the winners of sporting events, such as horse races or football games. Often, the winnings are split among multiple ticket-holders. Sometimes, the winnings are a single large prize, such as a house or car.

While the casting of lots for divine decisions and destinies has a long record in human history, the use of lotteries to win material gain is much more recent. The first recorded public lotteries to distribute prize money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century for such purposes as raising funds to repair town fortifications, and helping the poor. The practice was soon brought to the United States, where it initially met with widespread opposition from Christians who objected to gambling and the divining of God’s will through chance.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, a national obsession with unimaginable wealth, symbolized by the dream of winning a huge jackpot, coincided with a decline in the financial security provided by employment and pensions, and increasing health care costs and inflation. As a result, income inequality widened, the middle class shrank, and America’s long-standing national promise that hard work would enable people to live better than their parents was increasingly out of reach.

Until recently, it was not uncommon for state and local governments to hold a variety of lotteries to raise money for everything from AIDS research to school construction. It was even possible to buy a fifty-dollar scratch-off lottery ticket at a check-cashing establishment, and many Americans did so regularly. In addition, a host of private companies ran lotteries to sell everything from Snickers bars to cruise vacations.

In fact, the state of New Hampshire was one of the first to authorize a lottery in 1964, and it became an integral part of American life for decades to come. In the years that followed, however, as state governments shifted away from direct government support to private institutions, lottery revenues declined. And, as Cohen points out, the lottery’s role as a source of tax revenue was not helped by the nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt.

Whether or not people believe that they can improve their chances of winning by choosing certain numbers, there is little evidence that it does any good. For example, Clotfelter explains that players who choose birthdays or other personal numbers are less likely to win because those numbers tend to be repeated more frequently. Furthermore, he notes that nothing in the past or future affects a given drawing, so each time it is an independent event, with no “lucky” numbers or patterns. In short, playing a lottery is no more risky than buying a Snickers bar. If you play carefully, though, you might just be able to make the world yours.