The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a method of raising money by drawing numbers and awarding prizes based on the number of tickets sold. The value of the prize is usually predetermined and may include a large jackpot or many smaller prizes. Lottery proceeds are typically used to finance public projects or services. In the United States, state governments sponsor state-wide lotteries in addition to local and regional ones run by private organizations and charitable groups. The history of lotteries can be traced back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to conduct a census of Israel and divide land by lot; Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by lot, as did the hosts of popular dinner entertainments known as apophoreta, where guests would receive pieces of wood with symbols on them and toward the end of the evening have a drawing for prizes they could take home.

The first European public lotteries offering ticket sales for prizes in the form of money were probably held in the 15th century in Flanders and Burgundy by towns seeking to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The oldest surviving documents refer to lotteries in Ghent, Utrecht and Bruges. Francis I of France allowed public lotteries to be established in several cities in the early 16th century.

Lotteries are generally seen as an alternative source of revenue for a government or public entity, and thus have broad popular support. This support is enhanced when the lottery is perceived as a way to finance a specific public good, such as education. The popularity of lotteries has also increased during periods of economic stress, when the possibility of tax increases or cuts in public programs is most acute. However, studies by Clotfelter and Cook suggest that the popularity of lotteries does not necessarily correlate with the actual fiscal condition of a state’s government.

Nevertheless, critics of the lottery argue that, regardless of their effect on government revenues, lotteries expand gambling behavior and are a significant regressive tax on lower-income households. They also contend that lottery profits are often diverted from public purposes and promote addictive and harmful gambling behaviors.

People play the lottery primarily for the entertainment value and the hope that they will win. For these people, the disutility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the combined utility of the non-monetary benefits. Even when they lose, they gain value from the fact that they bought a ticket and spent a few minutes or hours or days dreaming of the winning combination. This value is the real reason why people continue to play, even when the odds are astronomically against them.