The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game of chance in which players buy tickets and match numbers drawn by machines. The winner receives a prize. People have been playing lotteries for centuries. The oldest known game is found in the Old Testament and Roman emperors used it to give away property and slaves. Benjamin Franklin even ran one to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

The first reason that states enacted lotteries is the need for revenue. They saw the games as a way to generate income without raising taxes on the working class and middle classes, especially during a time of inflation when regular tax revenue could dwindle. They also believed that gambling was inevitable and they might as well capture it.

State officials carved out monopolies for themselves; established a public corporation or agency to run the games; started with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, over time, expanded them in size and complexity to boost revenues. In the process, they built a large gambling industry.

Those expansions often happened very quickly. As a result, few, if any, states have a coherent “lottery policy.” Policy is made piecemeal and incrementally and with limited oversight. And, when it comes to the lottery, most of the money outside winnings goes back to the state. State officials can use it as they see fit, and many put it into the general fund to address budget shortfalls and pay for things like roadwork, bridgework and police force.

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