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The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game of chance that awards prizes based on a random drawing. Typically, participants pay a small amount of money (a dollar, for example) and receive a set of numbers or symbols. Each number or symbol corresponds to a specific position in the lottery. The winner is the person whose numbers or symbols match those randomly selected by a machine. Prizes can range from cash to goods, services, and even real estate.

The lottery is a popular form of gambling. People spent upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021, making it the country’s most common form of gaming. States promote lotteries as ways to raise revenue, but how much those dollars actually mean for a state’s budget, and whether that revenue is worth the trade-offs of people losing their money, are important questions.

The idea behind the lottery is that it provides a way for states to expand their social safety nets without raising taxes too much on middle class and working class families. But the history of the lottery tells a different story: that it’s essentially just another way for states to raise taxes and entice people to gamble, and that it preys on the most vulnerable members of society.

In the Low Countries in the 15th century, a variety of towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. But lottery games did not become popular in the United States until after World War II, when they began to be promoted by people who believed that they would allow states to eliminate taxes altogether.