The History of Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize. The prizes vary, but most often they consist of money or goods. Lotteries may be run as a business or for public benefit. Although many people see it as a harmless form of entertainment, critics argue that it has addictive properties and can cause problems for the poor and problem gamblers. Despite these concerns, state lotteries remain very popular and governments are reluctant to abolish them.

Lotteries are a classic example of a policy decision being made piecemeal and incrementally, rather than as part of an overall state government or lottery “policy.” When a new lottery is established, the state legislature and voters must approve it. Then, once the lottery is underway, it attracts a large and specialized constituency, such as convenience store operators (the primary vendors for lotteries); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions from suppliers to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education), and so on. Because this group represents a specific interest, it has a stronger grip on the lottery than does the general public.

Throughout history, governments have used lotteries to raise funds for all sorts of projects. Some are small, such as the keno slips found in ancient Roman dinnerware; others are major, such as the building of the Great Wall of China. A lottery is an attempt to distribute wealth fairly. It works by drawing lots, either randomly or at a fixed time. Those who draw the winning numbers receive the prize. The prizes, however, are usually of unequal value to the winners.

In colonial-era America, public lotteries were common for paving streets and wharves, and for funding schools. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to fund the purchase of cannons for the defense of Philadelphia against the British. Privately organized lotteries were also a regular feature of life, allowing wealthy people to sell their property and other assets for much more than they could obtain in an ordinary sale.

The first recorded state-sanctioned lotteries were in the Low Countries in the 15th century, raising money for town walls and to help the poor. The word is probably derived from the Middle Dutch term lotijne or the French verb loterie, which refers to the drawing of lots for the allocation of prizes.

Since 1964, when the modern era of state lotteries began, none have been abolished. They remain enormously popular, raising billions of dollars each year. But a growing body of research suggests that they are not helping the states’ fiscal health. And in some cases, they may actually be hurting it. For example, studies suggest that the increased advertising for state lotteries can lead to lower consumer spending in other areas and may contribute to a widening economic gap between rich and poor. Moreover, the way state lotteries are run can create conflicts between public interests and private profit.

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