The History of the Lottery

Whether they’re a contest for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school, lotteries are a popular way to distribute resources among competing applicants. In the simplest sense, participants pay a fee to enter the lottery and are selected by chance to win prizes if their numbers match those randomly chosen by machines or by other means. These arrangements are sometimes called “financial lotteries,” even though other kinds of lotteries exist—including those that award a small number of players positions in athletic teams or even units in the military.

The idea of selecting winners by casting lots has a long history, dating back to the earliest recorded instances of public lottery games in the fourteen-hundreds. It was common in the Roman Empire (Nero loved his lotteries), and it played a large role in the early colonial America, where colonists raised money by selling tickets to help build wharves, streets, and churches.

In modern times, the lottery has become a popular way to raise money for everything from schools to parks to police forces. In the late-twentieth century, as states searched for ways to balance budgets without enraging an anti-tax electorate, a lottery quickly became the answer of choice.

State governments created monopolies for themselves; staffed lottery offices; authorized a limited number of games, initially just scratch cards; and began to expand their offerings as profits increased. But as lottery revenues rose, so did the number of complaints that states were spending too much on their prizes and not enough on services, including education, health care, and funds for the poor.

Despite these criticisms, the lottery remains an enormously popular game. People love to imagine what they’d do if they won. Some dream of immediate spending sprees, others would buy a house in cash, and still others think they’d put it in savings and investments to grow their wealth. Many people also think of using the proceeds to help those in need, such as homeless shelters or veterans’ organizations.

As lottery sales grew, some states used the money to earmark it for specific programs. But critics point out that, because lottery dollars are simply a supplement to existing appropriations from the general fund, these “earmarked” lottery proceeds do nothing more than shift a portion of the legislature’s discretionary funds away from other priorities—and often into more unpopular ones, such as the state’s booming prison system.

Those who play the lottery may be hooked for life, but winning big isn’t easy. The odds are stacked against you, and it’s hard to avoid the temptation to spend more money than you can afford. The key is to play the lottery smartly and keep playing. For example, you should stick to smaller games with less numbers, as the lower number of combinations will give you a better chance of winning. You can buy scratch cards and prepaid lottery tickets at most grocery stores, check-cashing outlets, and gas stations.