The History of the Lottery


The lottery is an activity in which people pay for a ticket and try to win a prize by matching numbers or symbols. It is an extremely popular pastime in the United States and contributes billions to state coffers each year. Although the odds of winning are low, many people still play because they believe that they have a chance at getting rich.

Whether you think of lotteries as gambling or as public service, they have long been a fixture in American life. Since 1964, when New Hampshire became the first state to legalize a lottery, they have exploded. In the late twentieth century, they were one of several state revenue generators that allowed politicians to float a budget without raising taxes. As the tax revolt that swept through America in the early part of this century intensified, legislators turned to the lottery as a source of painless revenue and an effective way to keep state services running without enraging voters who opposed raising any taxes.

State lotteries have a variety of characteristics, but most include some means of recording the identities of bettors, the amounts they stake, and their selection of a group of numbers or other symbols. Most also have a mechanism for pooling the money placed as stakes and determining, later, who won. Some state lotteries have sales agents who purchase whole tickets at a discount and then sell them at full price in shops, while others use a system of numbered receipts that bettors can redeem for prizes later.

While many states use their lotteries to fund a range of programs, most of them offer only a small portion of their total budgets in prizes. For example, the Massachusetts lottery, which has been in operation since 1967, gives away about a third of its revenues. In addition, it funds a wide range of social-service initiatives, including public parks, elder care, and aid to veterans.

In The Lottery, a short story by John Steinbeck, Tessie Hutchinson wins the main prize in a lottery for the right to buy a field of corn. The story describes her anguish as she draws her number. It also portrays the town’s general indifference to the lottery and, by implication, its negative impacts on human welfare.

It is not uncommon for public policy to be made in a piecemeal manner with little or no overall overview. This is the case with lottery policies, which were established in most states with very little general oversight. As a result, few, if any, state officials have a coherent “lottery policy.” Instead, they often find themselves inheriting policies that rely heavily on revenues that they can do nothing to change.

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