The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling that relies on drawing numbers to determine a prize. It is often played for a cash prize, but can also be for merchandise or services. Many states have state-sponsored lotteries, and some do not. The word derives from the Latin term for “drawing lots,” and the first recorded lotteries took place in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These were used to raise funds for local purposes, such as building town fortifications and helping the poor.

State lotteries have a long and complex history in the United States, both as private games and public ones. Currently, they are thriving, with Americans spending nearly $100 billion each year on tickets. But the industry has a troubled history.

In the 1800s, religious and moral sensibilities started to turn against gambling in general, says Matheson. Around the same time, Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in Charleston, won a lottery and used the winnings to buy his freedom. This and other instances of corruption helped to erode popular support for lotteries.

Today, state lotteries usually begin with a legislative monopoly for the government; establish a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (rather than license a private company in return for a percentage of profits); and begin operations with a modest jackpot prize. The state then sets a profit target for itself, which must be at least the same as the cost of operating the lottery. Lotteries may also be marketed as a way to benefit a specific public good, such as education, and this argument is particularly effective during economic crises when the lottery can be portrayed as a hedge against tax increases or cuts in other public services.