The History of the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay for a ticket and select numbers or allow machines to randomly spit out combinations. They then hope to win a prize, which is usually a sum of money or goods. The winner is usually declared by drawing lots or a computer, though in some cases there are judges and observers present. Lotteries are generally seen as harmless, and they have a long history. They have been used to raise funds for a wide variety of public works, including roads, bridges, canals, and colleges. They are also a popular way to fund sports teams and professional athletes.

In the seventeenth century it was common for colonial America to hold lotteries to finance both private and public ventures. These included roads, libraries, churches, schools, colleges, and canals. The colonies also used them to fund military campaigns. In addition, the lottery financed the foundation of Princeton and Columbia universities. By the time of the Revolutionary War, it was widely accepted that the government could not afford to pay for all of its public services without relying on some sort of taxation or other funding source.

During the period immediately following World War II, it was easy for states to expand their array of services with relatively low taxes on working class people. But as the economy began to slow down and inflation, and especially the cost of the Vietnam War, began to eat into state coffers, it became impossible for many states to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting programs. Lotteries, with their promise of a small chance of winning a large amount of money, were seen as a solution to the problem.

The first state-run lottery was established in New Hampshire, a state famously known for being anti-tax. Other states soon followed suit, all of them in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. But by the late nineteen-sixties, it was clear that the lottery was not going to float most state budgets, and legalization advocates were forced to rethink their strategy. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they started to argue that it would fund a single line item, invariably one that was popular and nonpartisan, such as education, elder care, or public parks.

Rich people play the lottery, too, of course; three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut, won a Powerball jackpot worth over a quarter of a billion dollars in January 2016. But they typically buy fewer tickets than poorer people do. As a result, their purchases represent a smaller percentage of their income. Still, a lot of the people who play the lottery believe that their lives will be transformed if they can just win big. This is an example of the temptation to covet what one does not have, a temptation that God forbids. (See Ecclesiastes.) In fact, most lottery winners end up broke in a few years, and often spend their winnings on more gambling.