The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a system of random selection for a prize or reward. It may be used to determine the winner of a competition, such as a sporting event, to distribute public money or goods, to fill vacancies in a company or organization, or for any other purpose. The process involves purchasing a ticket with a set of odds of winning, and drawing a number from a list to determine the winner. The probability of winning is extremely low and is often less than one percent. It is a popular form of gambling, with Americans spending more than $80 billion per year on tickets.

The lottery has a long and complicated history. It was popular in the Roman Empire (Nero himself was a big fan), it’s found throughout the Bible, and it even served as a kind of party game at lavish Saturnalia dinners where guests were given tickets for a chance to win fancy items like fine dinnerware.

But it wasn’t until the mid-sixties that states started running lotteries, with New Hampshire leading the way. Lotteries were a way for governments to expand services without raising taxes that would hit poorer people hardest. This was the era that saw the expansion of welfare programs, Medicare, and public universities, all paid for with government revenue derived from a relatively small number of committed gamblers who didn’t mind paying a little more in taxes than they might have otherwise to get that winning lottery ticket.

This arrangement began to unravel in the nineteen seventies and eighties as income inequality grew, job security declined, social safety nets eroded, health-care costs rose, and the American dream of economic prosperity receded for most working families. But the lottery continued to thrive. It was a “low-odds game,” meaning that the odds of winning were so insignificant, it was tempting to keep buying tickets for a chance at an impossible dream. As a result, the prize money soared. The chances of winning the jackpot rose from one-in-three million to one-in-five-million, and then to one-in-six-million.

In addition, lottery advocates dismissed ethical objections by arguing that since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well collect the profits. This argument had limits—by its logic, governments should also sell heroin—but it did give moral cover to those who approved of the lottery.