The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a popular pastime in most states and countries. People pay money to buy a ticket and then choose numbers on a grid that’s typically printed on an official lottery playslip. Then they hand their playslip back, and the state or lottery commission keeps the prize money. In some cases, the prizes are very large — as much as three hundred million dollars in the case of Powerball — but most have to be split among many winners. There are also costs associated with organizing and promoting the lotteries, as well as taxes on ticket sales.

In the fourteenth century, lottery offerings began popping up in the Low Countries to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. They spread to England in the fifteenth century, where lottery games fueled a resurgence of the cast-of-lots practice, used for everything from choosing the next pope to deciding who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion.

Initially, state lotteries were pitched as a way for governments to provide services without raising taxes. That arrangement proved untenable in the nineteen-seventies and twenties as income inequality widened, pensions and job security eroded, health-care costs rose, and our long-standing national promise that education and hard work would make you richer than your parents ceased to be true.

Lottery commissioners have responded by increasing the odds of winning and dropping prize caps, making jackpots larger while decreasing the likelihood of getting one. They have also turned to behavioral science and the psychology of addiction, aiming to keep players hooked by presenting their product as a fun game that’s not too different from gambling. It’s not a stretch to compare this strategy to those of tobacco companies and video-game makers, which use similar tactics.