The Hidden History of the Lottery


The lottery is a big business, and the most visible part of it are those gigantic billboards on the highways advertising the huge jackpots. But there is a whole lot more going on that is invisible to most people. Lotteries are dangling the promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility, and they are tapping into that inextricable human desire to gamble.

The practice of distributing property and determining fates by lot has a long history, including several biblical examples. Moses was instructed to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and goods through a similar process. In Europe, the first publicly held lottery was organized by Augustus Caesar to raise funds for repairs in Rome. Later, private lotteries were used as dinner entertainment and to distribute gifts during Saturnalian feasts. The modern state lottery is much like those old private lotteries, with its monopoly on sale and distribution of tickets and the use of a prize pool to finance the prizes.

In the United States, the lottery was a popular source of revenue during the colonial period and early American republic. In 1776 Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British, and in 1826 Thomas Jefferson held a lottery to alleviate his crushing debts. Privately sponsored lotteries remained popular as a means of raising money for a wide variety of projects, including building several American colleges (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and King’s College).

Lottery officials often tout the benefits of their games, saying they are an inexpensive form of taxation that raises money for education, health, and other public uses. But critics point to the disproportionate number of low-income and other disadvantaged players, and note that lottery proceeds are often diverted from the programs they are supposed to support.

Most state lotteries operate on a similar model: a public corporation or agency is legislated as the monopoly seller of tickets; it establishes a prize pool, with one large prize and many smaller ones; expenses, such as advertising, are deducted from ticket sales; and proceeds are returned to the prize pool, from which winners are chosen. The earliest American lotteries were privately promoted, but most now use the state’s name as their trademark and require all promoters to obtain a license.

When selecting scratch-off games, pay close attention to when the records were last updated. Buying tickets shortly after an update ensures that you’re using the most current information. You should also pay attention to the odds of winning, which are listed on the website for each game. In addition, you can check to see which prizes have been claimed and how many are still available. This will give you a better idea of which games are worth your time.