The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling in which tokens are distributed or sold, with the winning token(s) being selected by lot. The term is also applied to the process of drawing lots to decide a contestant or position within a group, as well as to the casting of lots for certain events in life, such as naming a king or determining who will receive Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. In modern times, lotteries are most often organized to raise money for public works and other charitable causes.

The earliest recorded use of the lottery was in the Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BC, where bettors wrote their names on a piece of paper for a chance to win prizes. Later, a lottery was used in the Roman Empire—Nero was a huge fan—and the casting of lots was also found throughout the Bible for everything from determining who should rule over Israel to choosing which apostles would keep their own garments after his crucifixion. Lotteries became common in the American colonies, despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery in 1776 to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia.

Today, state lotteries are a multibillion-dollar business that contribute to the bottom line of many states. But the underlying dynamics that led to their proliferation are quite similar in all forty-seven states where they operate: lottery advocates argue that it’s a good way for governments to spend money without taxing the people. That argument grew especially potent in the postwar period, when governments were growing their array of social safety net programs but were doing so on a declining base of revenue from sales and property taxes.

But that narrative broke apart in the late-twentieth century, as voters revolted against high taxes and politicians became increasingly aware of their power to influence state budgets. In that context, the idea of a lottery as a magic bullet that floats most of a state’s spending becomes untenable. To avoid losing the argument altogether, lottery advocates began changing their message. Instead of arguing that a lottery would pay for the entire social safety net, they began touting it as a source of revenue for a single program—often education, but also veterans services or public parks or elder care—that voters wanted to see expanded.

These reframed messages have proved successful, but they obscure the fact that state lotteries remain regressive and deeply unequal. People who play the lottery do so in clear knowledge that their odds of winning are long. But they also have a conviction that, however irrational it is, the lottery represents their last or best chance at a better life. And that explains why they keep playing.