The Evolution of the Lottery


The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. Lotteries became common in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Since that time, state and private lotteries have raised money for a variety of purposes, from wars to public-works projects and even colleges.

Many of the states that introduced lotteries in the 1970s did so out of a need to raise cash without raising taxes. Others did so because they had large Catholic populations that were tolerant of gambling activities. The emergence of the lottery in these states also enabled politicians to tout it as a “painless” source of revenue.

In the beginning, the lottery was a relatively small affair. But, as is often the case with government-run businesses, it has progressively grown to an enormous size because of a continual pressure for more revenues. Generally, this expansion occurs in two ways: First, governments legislate the monopoly and establish a state agency or corporation to run it; then, they start with a modest number of relatively simple games and, under constant pressure for more funds, progressively add more to them.

In addition to adding new games, lotteries have been driven by the desire to attract players with super-sized jackpots. But, while such jackpots can drive sales (and generate free publicity on news sites and on television), they also make the odds of winning less favorable to those who play.