The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn randomly and winners are awarded prizes, usually money. Prizes can also include goods and services, such as subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements. In the United States, state governments operate lotteries, which are legal and regulated by federal and state laws. The profits from these lotteries are used to fund a variety of public purposes, including education and public works projects. In addition to state lotteries, private companies sponsor and operate commercial lotteries. The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for sale and award prizes in the form of cash were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Local records from towns such as Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges describe the use of lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications, the poor, and other public usages.

The modern state lotteries have generally followed similar paths: a state legislates its monopoly; establishes a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (instead of licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to pressure to increase revenues, gradually expands the lottery’s size and complexity, especially through the introduction of new types of games.

By the 1970s, the state lotteries had developed into an essentially permanent fixture of American life, with a core group of thirty-two states and the District of Columbia having them in operation. The majority of the country’s population lived within one of these jurisdictions, and they generated a great deal of revenue for the states that operated them.

At this point, the arguments in favor of state lotteries focused primarily on their value as sources of “painless” revenue, with legislators embracing the lottery as a way to collect taxes without imposing them directly on citizens. This dynamic continues to this day, with most states arguing that their lotteries provide a useful and legitimate source of income while generating substantial social benefits.

Although critics have pointed out that the growth of lottery revenues tends to level off and even decline after a period of time, these trends are not necessarily a result of any inherent flaws in the structure of the lottery or its operations. Instead, they reflect the fact that many people become bored with the existing games and require a continual influx of new games to generate the necessary excitement and enthusiasm.

Lottery games are played by adults who purchase tickets and pay an entry fee, which normally covers the cost of administration. A percentage of the total proceeds is retained by the organizers as costs and profits, and the remainder goes to winners. Prizes may be large or small, and the size of the prizes is an important factor in determining how many players will participate. In most cultures, the larger prizes are more attractive to potential bettors. However, some governments have found that large jackpots can attract less-than-desirable participants, causing problems with compulsive gambling and other issues.