The History of the Lottery

The drawing of lots to make decisions or determine fates has a long history in human society. But the modern lottery, as a means of raising revenue for public projects, is of more recent origin. It is widely used in the United States and many other countries. Those who play the lottery have to accept that they are essentially betting their money on an improbable chance of winning. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can lead to the accumulation of emergency funds, pay off credit card debt and so on. But there is a dark side to this practice, one that is obscured by the billboards on the highway offering the latest Mega Million or Powerball jackpots. Americans spend more than $80 Billion each year on lottery tickets, and many of those who win go bankrupt within a couple years because they cannot handle the tax burden.

Typically, state lotteries are established by legislating a government monopoly; establishing a public agency or corporation to run the lottery (rather than licensing a private firm in exchange for a cut of the profits); starting with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, gradually expanding the lottery size and complexity. This is a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with the overall welfare of the public only intermittently taken into consideration by lottery officials.

The popularity of lottery games has varied over the years, depending on socioeconomic factors. Men, in particular, play more than women; Blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; and lottery play decreases with age, although non-lottery gambling increases.