History of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize national or state lotteries. In the United States, winnings from lotteries are taxed at 24 percent. In other countries, the taxes can be much higher.

The practice of distributing prizes by lottery dates back thousands of years. It is attested to in the Bible, where lots are used for everything from choosing a king of Israel to deciding who gets Jesus’s clothes after his Crucifixion. In the earliest instances, however, lotteries were mostly deployed as a party game (during Roman Saturnalias, guests were given tickets that could be exchanged for prizes) or as a way to divine God’s will.

In the seventeenth century, the lottery became popular in Europe, mainly because it was a painless way to raise money for a variety of public purposes, including town fortifications and charity. Lotteries spread to America along with England, and soon became widespread in the colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

The popularity of the lottery in Europe and America grew during a time of economic instability. In a period when wages were low and unemployment was high, people turned to the lottery for excitement and cash. Lottery profits helped fund the American Revolution and founded Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary colleges, among other institutions.

By the 1820s, state governments began to collect lottery profits to pay for public works. The profits also funded the building of the first railroads and helped bring about the abolition of slavery in the United States. In the nineteenth century, lotteries continued to be a popular form of entertainment and fundraising. In the twentieth century, the popularity of lotteries waned due to increased competition from games such as television and the internet.

In the early twenty-first century, lottery revenues fell and some states cut their lotteries. Some resorted to gimmicks, such as adding new games and increasing jackpot amounts, to keep players interested. Others focused on improving education, which is now the largest component of lottery revenues.

Even with these changes, lottery revenue is still high relative to other forms of gambling. Moreover, the social and emotional appeal of lotteries persists. The lottery’s enduring popularity reflects an inherent human desire to improve one’s fortune. Even when the odds of winning are absurdly low, people will continue to play, as long as they believe that the chance of striking it big is possible. This is the psychology of addiction—and it is not dissimilar to the strategies used by tobacco companies and video-game makers.