The History of the Lottery

The lottery, a game in which numbers are drawn to determine winners of prizes, has a long record in human history. Whether the casting of lots for a wife, a farm, or a prize has been used to decide fates and to distribute materials of unequal value, lotteries have been an effective method for raising money for a variety of purposes.

The modern era of state lotteries dates from the immediate post-World War II period, when states sought to expand their social safety nets without onerous taxes on middle and working class families. Lotteries were hailed as a relatively painless method of taxation and a way to raise funds for a range of uses, from kindergarten admission to a reputable school to the purchase of units in a subsidized housing block.

Lotteries are run as businesses, and their marketing efforts inevitably focus on persuading target groups to spend their money on tickets. This promotion of gambling can have negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers, and it may be at cross-purposes with the larger public interest.

There are currently 44 states and the District of Columbia that run a lottery. The six states that don’t—Alabama, Utah, Mississippi, Arkansas, Montana, and Nevada—choose not to have a lottery for a variety of reasons. Some of them have religious objections to gambling, and others, such as Mississippi and Nevada, already allow it; they don’t want a competing entity to cut into their profits.