The History of the Lottery

Whether used to select kindergarten admissions at a favored school, the winners of a coveted position in a public-works project, or a prize for a lottery ticket, lotteries are a well-established feature of American life. But the lottery’s rise and popularity is not without controversy, as concerns about problem gamblers, regressive impacts on lower-income groups, and state gambling policy have become a regular feature of political debates.

Despite these criticisms, however, the lottery continues to thrive. As a public game that draws on the support of private players, it raises hundreds of billions of dollars each year. This enormous sum helps finance everything from public-works projects to college tuitions, and it has been a major source of revenue for many states.

The word “lottery” derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “abundance,” and the English word lottery is probably derived from the Middle Dutch verb lottie, also meaning fate or chance. The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is recorded in many ancient documents, including the Bible, and the practice spread throughout Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1612, King James I of England established a lottery to help fund the first permanent British settlement in America.

State lotteries operate as a hybrid of government and business: They are legally established by the legislature as a government monopoly; they rely on advertising to generate revenues; and they constantly expand in size, complexity, and offerings. As a result, they often operate at cross-purposes with the larger public interests.