The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which tokens are sold or distributed, and a drawing is held to select a prize. The prizes are usually cash, but can also include goods and services. The game is generally regulated by the state and the proceeds are used for public or private purposes. It is a common method of raising funds, especially in the colonies. In colonial America, lotteries played an important role in financing the building of roads, canals, libraries, churches, and colleges. They also helped fund the French and Indian War.

The modern era of state lotteries began with New Hampshire’s establishment in 1964 and is now firmly established in 37 states. Since then, state governments have tended to follow a similar pattern: they legislate a monopoly for themselves; establish a lottery agency or public corporation to run the lottery (instead of licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand the lottery in size and complexity, particularly in the form of adding new games.

Lottery advocates promote the idea that the games are a source of “painless revenue”-money that is voluntarily spent by players for the benefit of the public good-and therefore offer a way to raise money without imposing onerous taxes on the general population. This argument has proven particularly persuasive in times of economic stress, when lotteries are seen as a way to avoid tax increases or cuts in public spending. However, research has shown that the objective fiscal situation of a state does not seem to play a significant role in whether or when it adopts a lottery.

In addition to the arguments based on expected value maximization, supporters of the lottery argue that it is socially desirable to have an opportunity to win the jackpot in exchange for a low cost; that it can provide a harmless form of entertainment; and that it offers a comparatively inexpensive alternative to illegal gambling and other forms of risk-taking. Critics counter that the lottery promotes addictive gambling behavior, is a major regressive tax on lower-income groups, and can have a number of other harmful consequences.

The purchase of lottery tickets can be accounted for by decision models that incorporate risk-seeking behavior. However, a more general model of utility functions defined on things other than the lottery outcome can also account for the purchases. In fact, some research suggests that people who purchase lottery tickets do so because they have a psychological desire to experience a moment of excitement and to indulge in the fantasy of becoming rich. In general, men tend to play more often than women; whites are more likely to play than blacks or Hispanics; and the young and old play less than middle-aged individuals. Income also plays a role in lottery participation, with those from lower-income neighborhoods playing at much higher rates than those from upper-income neighborhoods.