The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a procedure for distributing something, usually money or prizes, among a group of people by lot or chance. Modern lotteries are often used in military conscription and commercial promotions in which property is given away, but they can also be found in the selection of jury members from lists of registered voters and in some forms of religious consecration. In the strict definition of a gambling type of lottery, the consideration must be money or some other value that can be exchanged for the prize. Other types of lotteries, such as those that award public works contracts to residents of a particular neighborhood or to disadvantaged groups, are not considered gambling because payment is not made for the chance to win.

Lotteries are a major source of income for many state governments and have been in existence for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had lotteries to determine who received royal robes or land, while the Romans held them for Saturnalian feasts and other entertainments. The practice was largely abandoned during the Reformation, but was revived in England in the fourteen-hundreds as a means to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. It soon spread to the colonies, despite strong Protestant prohibitions against gambling and dice play.

While early America was defined politically by its aversion to taxation, lotteries became popular there as well, funding everything from Harvard and Yale to the building of churches and even the Continental Congress’s efforts at national defense. In the seventeen-hundreds, as a form of political reform, lotteries were introduced into some southern states that had earlier rejected them on ethical grounds, and by the eighteenth century they were the norm for most American communities.

Although many people enjoy playing the lottery, critics often point out that it is an addictive form of gambling with extremely slim odds of winning. The chances of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire are much greater than winning the Powerball jackpot. Furthermore, those who do win large jackpots can often find themselves worse off than they were before.

In the past, some people were reluctant to support state-run lotteries on ethical grounds, but others argued that since gamblers were going to bet anyway, it was immoral for the government not to collect the profits. This argument, writes Cohen, enabled lotteries to gain widespread acceptance, and it helped ease long-standing ethical objections to taxation and other forms of government income.

Although rich people do play the lottery (one of the largest-ever Powerball jackpots was won by three Greenwich asset managers), they buy fewer tickets than those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. In fact, the wealthy spend only about one per cent of their annual income on tickets; those making less than fifty thousand dollars a year spend thirteen per cent. This disparity, combined with the fact that the rich are more likely to own homes, makes it difficult for them to justify a habit of gambling.