History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random and participants pay a sum of money to win a prize. A prize can be anything from a cash prize to goods or services. The prize amounts are determined by a fixed number of tickets sold and the probability that a given ticket will be selected is proportional to its price. The game is usually run by a state government or its agency. Lotteries are common in the United States and some other countries.

The origins of the modern lottery date to the 15th century, when towns held lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to aid the poor. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many people took part in the lottery as a form of entertainment. In the United States, state governments began to use the lottery to raise money for public works projects and for social welfare programs. In the 19th century, the state lottery became a major source of tax revenue for many states.

Today, the vast majority of states offer a lottery. In 2003, approximately 186,000 retailers — convenience stores, religious and fraternal organizations, nonprofit service stations, restaurants and bars, bowling alleys, and newsstands — sold lottery tickets in the United States. About three-fourths of these retailers also sell online games. The National Association of State Lottery Operators (NASPL) has a Web site that lists the locations of these outlets and the types of lottery games they sell.

Throughout the history of the lottery, the main argument used to promote its adoption has been that it is a source of “painless” revenue: people voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of the state without having to vote for a tax increase or a cut in a specific public program. This argument has proven effective, and it is a significant reason why state lotteries have enjoyed such broad popular support.

However, the lottery has also been criticized for its tendency to increase gambling and its effect on certain groups, such as low-income and problem gamblers. In addition, since a lottery is essentially a private business that makes its profits by persuading the public to spend their money, it has been questioned whether this function should be entrusted to the government.

As of August 2004, lotteries operated in forty-four states and the District of Columbia. In all of these, the state legislature grants itself a legal monopoly on the operation of the lottery, prohibiting commercial lotteries from competing with it. Almost all states advertise their lotteries, and the bulk of the lottery’s advertising budget is spent on urging people to buy tickets. This promotion of gambling has raised concerns over negative effects for the poor and problems related to problem gambling, as well as over whether it is a proper role for government.