The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine the distribution of property. Its history reaches back centuries, with biblical examples in Numbers 26:55-57 and Roman emperors giving away property—including slaves—by lot. In modern times, lotteries are big business. They draw millions of dollars in player revenue and make huge profits for state governments. In the process, they promote irrational gambling habits and skewed views of wealth. The Bible, however, encourages us to pursue honest riches through hard work and diligence. Using the lottery to get rich quickly is a futile strategy that is likely to lead to poverty in the long run.

The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or fortune. People have been playing the lottery for centuries, from distributing land to the poor to awarding knighthoods. The practice is considered gambling because the outcome of a lottery depends on chance, and placing money on an event with uncertain outcomes is risky. Lotteries have a particular appeal because they allow players to win without having to pay a fee, unlike most other forms of gambling.

Lottery advocates pushed hard for legalization because they saw it as a way to fund government services without raising taxes. They marketed the lottery as a “silver bullet,” arguing that it would float state budgets and eliminate the need for taxation. They were right, at least for a while. But in the nineteen-sixties, when inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War slowed the economy and increased state spending, it became harder to balance state budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services.

As legalization stalled, lottery advocates began modifying their message. Instead of promoting the idea that a lottery could finance all of a state’s budget, they started arguing that it would fund one line item—usually education, but sometimes veterans’ services, elder care, or public parks. This recast the lottery as a noble cause, and it made campaigning for legalization easier.

By the early seventies, the jackpots of some state lotteries had grown to astonishingly large amounts. These mega-prizes drew media attention and drove ticket sales. But the odds of winning were shrinking as well. The odds of winning the Powerball, for example, were now one in three million. To the average lottery player, the difference between one-in-three-million and one-in-three-hundred-million was essentially insignificant, but it mattered enormously to lottery commissions.

A big part of the problem with lottery marketing is its message that money is easy to come by if you just play the right numbers. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the odds of winning are still long and that the right numbers probably won’t be the ones you select. People also buy into all sorts of quote-unquote systems, such as limiting the amount of tickets purchased or picking a lucky number, that aren’t based in any way on statistical reasoning.