The Origins of the Lottery and Why It’s Important to Government


Lotteries are a booming business in the United States, with Americans spending billions each year on tickets. Yet state lotteries were introduced for much more than the pleasure of a game that’s “not gambling.” They were designed to bring in new revenue that could be used to expand government services without burdening working and middle class families too heavily. This arrangement lasted until the mid-1970s, when the lottery’s revenues began to flatten out and even decline.

The origins of lottery date back centuries ago, with references in the Old Testament and in Roman legends. Moses was instructed to take a census of Israel and divide their land among them by lot, while Roman emperors gave away property and slaves through their version of a lottery called the apophoreta. The first European public lotteries to award money prizes were established in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders by towns attempting to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

Today’s state lotteries are remarkably similar to those of the past, with people buying tickets that are then drawn in a random selection for the chance to win. However, innovations in the 1970s transformed the industry by introducing games with smaller prize amounts that could be purchased much more quickly and cheaply. Lotteries were also introduced as instant games, such as scratch-off tickets, that didn’t require a ticket purchase or a drawing.

In modern times, state governments rely on lottery revenues to support a wide range of services, from education to law enforcement and social welfare programs. Typically, the bulk of lottery revenues come from ticket sales, with the rest coming from a small percentage of profits. In this way, the modern state lotteries are a classic case of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with the overall welfare of the population rarely taken into account.

State officials have been reluctant to change the basic structure of lotteries, which are considered by many to be an effective way to distribute wealth in society. One reason is that the games are popular, with a large proportion of people playing regularly, especially those who spend more than they can afford to lose. Another reason is that changing the lottery would be seen as a betrayal of tradition. For example, the traditional black box is a symbol of lotteries that dates back centuries and it seems absurd to try to remove that from the game. Moreover, the way people play lotteries is often embedded in traditions and rituals that are hard to break, including using the same type of tickets and placing them in the same place. This kind of traditionalism can lead to a sort of mysticism about the game that can obscure its regressive nature. For these reasons, it’s important to consider the regressive nature of lottery when considering its future. A new approach is needed.