The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a process of allocating limited resources to people in a way that is fair and random. Usually, people pay for a ticket to win money or other prizes. Some governments hold public lotteries, and some private companies organize commercial ones. There are many examples of this kind of system in our daily lives: kindergarten placements at a reputable school, unit assignments in subsidized housing blocks, and the selection of vaccines to combat a fast-moving virus.

The word lottery is derived from the Latin verb lotere, meaning “to throw” or “to draw lots.” The first recorded use of the term in English was in 1545; it might be a contraction of Middle Dutch loterie, which itself probably derives from Latin lotum, the root of a verb meaning to divide, allot, or distribute. Lotteries are usually run by state governments and provide funding for a variety of projects.

Cohen argues that modern state lotteries were launched in the nineteen sixties, when rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War began to devastate state budgets. States that had expanded their social safety nets in the immediate postwar period found themselves unable to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which would have been highly unpopular with voters. The solution, for many states, was the lottery.

As the popularity of the lottery grew in the 1960s, states started to think about how to use the money that they were collecting. They were not thinking about it in the context of a fun and harmless pastime—even though many states were still holding regular, legal gambling games—but rather as a revenue source that could help them get rid of taxes for good.

One way that the government used the proceeds from lotteries was to build roads and other public works. Another was to pay for college scholarships and other educational aids. Still other funds went to the poor and needy. And, in some cases, the money went to military service or charity.

In the seventeenth century, lotteries spread from England to the American colonies, even though there were strong Protestant proscriptions against playing cards and dice. They helped finance the construction of many of the colonies’ roads, canals, libraries, churches, and colleges. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, raised money with a lottery in 1740 to fund its local militia and later held one to raise money for the French and Indian War expedition against Canada.

Today, lottery revenues are a major component of state governments’ budgets, and they have also been used to fund health care, police forces, and schools. The odds of winning are generally much smaller than they were in the past, but the number of people playing has risen rapidly. This has caused some states to lift prize caps and add more numbers, such as adding a sixth number to a five-number lottery. The goal is to keep the jackpot large enough to attract people, but not so big that it drives away potential winners.