The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn to determine winners. The drawing may take the form of a pool or collection of tickets and counterfoils, a set of randomizing procedures, or a computer. The prize money may be a lump sum or an annuity. A number of states have lotteries, and the majority have legalized them for purposes such as generating revenue or raising public awareness about certain issues. In addition to state lotteries, some countries have national and international lotteries. The history of lotteries is rich and varied, but the general argument used to promote their adoption in every state has been that they provide a source of “painless” revenue: voters are willing to spend their own money for a tax that does not directly affect their incomes. This argument has been particularly effective when it is made by legislators seeking to increase spending on a specific public project, such as education.

Once established, the lottery typically begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games and, in order to generate additional revenue, progressively expands its offerings. Some of this expansion has been in the form of new games, such as video poker or keno. Other growth has been the result of an intensified effort to promote the lottery, including through advertising.

Because the lottery is a form of gambling, it must develop and maintain broad popular support in order to survive. As such, its popularity has tended to be strongly correlated with the prevailing economic conditions; it has been most successful in gaining and retaining approval when it is promoted as a means of supporting a particular public good, such as education.

In addition to broad popular appeal, lotteries generally attract a variety of specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who often sell the tickets); suppliers of prizes and services, such as scratch-off tickets; teachers (in those states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and political donors and fundraisers (heavy contributions to state campaigns are frequently reported).

Although many people have become wealthy by betting on the results of the lottery, it is important to remember that gambling should never be done to the extreme. Gambling can be a dangerous and addictive activity, and it should always be treated as a form of entertainment.

In terms of socioeconomic characteristics, the vast majority of lottery players appear to be middle-income citizens. However, a number of studies suggest that the poor play the lottery in proportionally lower rates than do those from upper-income neighborhoods. Furthermore, lottery participation seems to decline with increased formal education. These patterns have raised a number of ethical and practical questions for the lottery industry. It is unclear whether the lottery should seek to increase its participation among the poor, and if so, how this might be accomplished.