The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which prizes are won by drawing numbers at random. It is a popular method of raising money for state governments and for charitable purposes. The term is also used figuratively, as in “Life is a lottery,” to refer to a situation whose outcome appears to be determined by chance. In the United States, most lotteries are run by state governments, although private enterprises may also organize them. Most states have laws regulating the operation of lotteries and limiting the amount of prize money that can be awarded. Some states prohibit the use of the mail for lottery tickets. The most common way to purchase a ticket is in retail stores. Some states have laws requiring retailers to sell tickets only through authorized sellers. Others require that tickets be purchased at official state agencies or corporations. The legality of the game and the size of its prize pool are strictly regulated by state law, while the promotional activities of lotteries can be a violation of federal consumer protection laws.

The modern era of state-sponsored lotteries began in the United States after World War II. The states argued that lotteries provided a new source of revenue without having to raise taxes on working people, thus allowing them to expand their social safety net. While this argument may have appealed to some legislators, public opinion was mixed. Some critics argue that the lottery preys on economically disadvantaged people, and some research has found that it reduces people’s financial security.

In the early history of state lotteries, the first games were played for a variety of reasons. Some were designed to raise money for specific projects, such as repairing buildings in the City of Rome. Other games were held for entertainment at dinner parties, where guests were given tickets and prizes would be awarded in the form of fancy items such as dinnerware. Some of these early games grew to enormous jackpots, which attracted publicity on television and in the news, driving ticket sales.

Today, the modern state-sponsored lotteries are designed to attract as many customers as possible by offering an array of different games. They normally begin with a small number of relatively simple games and then, as pressure for additional revenues increases, add a growing list of new and more complex games. The costs of running and promoting the games must be deducted from the total prize pool, and a percentage of the remainder is normally paid as profits and revenues to the state or sponsor.

Some states have policies in place to ensure that a portion of the prize money goes to poor people, but this is not always adhered to. In addition, there is a tendency for the operations of state lotteries to become heavily dependent on a core group of stakeholders: convenience store operators (who provide many of the ticket outlets); lottery suppliers (whose heavy contributions to political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in those states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly learn that they can use the revenues from the lottery for their own purposes). This piecemeal approach to policymaking leaves few, if any, public officials with a comprehensive view of the overall direction of the lottery.