The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to win a prize. Most states have lotteries, and some have private lotteries as well. The prizes vary, but the main ones are cash. Some states also earmark a percentage of the proceeds for good causes.

Lotteries are widely accepted in the United States, but they remain controversial in many European countries and among some religious groups. Their supporters argue that they are a low-cost way to raise money for public purposes. Their critics point out that they are a significant source of compulsive gambling and regressive income effects on the poor.

In the 17th century, public lotteries were popular in England and the American colonies. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and lotteries were used to finance many public projects in the colonial period, including roads, canals, churches, colleges (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, King’s College, William and Mary), and more.

Unlike the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates, modern lotteries are organized for material gain, with tickets purchased for a drawing in the future, often weeks or months away. Revenues typically expand quickly, then level off and can even decline, but state governments are constantly introducing new games in an attempt to increase or maintain revenues. It is not surprising, therefore, that the popularity of lotteries has little to do with a state’s actual fiscal condition, as Clotfelter and Cook report.