The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are drawn at random. Some governments outlaw the practice, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries.

While the casting of lots as a means of decision-making and divination has a long history (see Nero’s use of it for his party games during the Saturnalia), the first public lotteries offering tickets with money as prizes were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. From that point on, lottery use expanded rapidly throughout Europe and beyond.

Modern lottery arrangements typically feature a pool or collection of tickets and counterfoils, which are thoroughly mixed through some mechanical means—typically shaking or tossing—and then used for the drawing. From the pool, some percentage is used to cover costs and profits, and the remainder is distributed as the prize. Some of this prize may be designated as a lump sum. This option allows the winner to receive all the prize funds at one time, but it also requires careful financial management to keep the wealth intact over the longer term.

As Cohen explains, the late-twentieth-century popularity of lottery betting paralleled a decline in the financial security of most working people. As the minimum wage fell and income inequality rose, more Americans came to see that winning a lottery jackpot could buy them a comfortable life—but it was a dream that required enormous risk and was based on chance rather than skill or careful planning.