The History of the Lottery

The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America, drawing billions in revenue each year from people who pay a small sum for the chance to win big. It is also one of the most controversial forms of public policy, with critics arguing that it undermines social norms, encourages reckless behavior, and contributes to inequality. Yet the lottery continues to expand and thrive, as state governments look for ways to balance budgets that don’t enrage an antitax electorate.

The history of lotteries is a tale of power, powerlessness and the limits of fairness. Lotteries have been used for centuries to determine everything from property to slaves. Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to raise funds for cannons during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson held a lottery to ease his crushing debts (although the winning ticket was later sold at auction). Roman emperors used them to give away land and other valuables during Saturnalian feasts.

While some lotteries are purely financial—people gamble for money—others offer prizes such as units in a subsidized housing project or kindergarten placements. Many of these lotteries are run by government agencies and use a random selection process to award prizes.

Until recently, most state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with players buying tickets for a future drawing that was weeks or months away. Innovations in the 1970s, however, radically transformed the industry. Now, the majority of lottery revenues are from instant games. The popularity of these tickets, which are more like scratch-offs than traditional lotteries, has led to a cycle where jackpots grow larger and the odds of winning smaller.