The History of the Lottery


Despite what you may have been told, you’re far more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the lottery. Yet despite the odds, millions of Americans buy tickets every year in the hope of one day standing on a stage holding an oversized check for millions of dollars. This is a form of gambling, and it’s rooted in the human impulse to try to control the unpredictable. But there’s something else going on here, too. It’s a kind of desperation. When you’re facing a tough economic climate and the possibility of an uncertain future, the lottery can seem like your last sliver of hope.

The lottery owes its origins to the Old Testament and Roman emperors, who used it to give away property and slaves. In the early modern era, states started to use lotteries to fill holes in their budgets. These were often states in the Northeast or Rust Belt that had bigger social safety nets and a more expensive cost of living, and the lotteries offered a way to expand their services without raising taxes on the middle class and working class.

By the late twentieth century, however, this model began to erode. With the resurgence of anti-tax sentiment, states looked for ways to increase their revenue streams that would not upset voters, and that’s when the lotteries really took off. They expanded into rural and suburban areas where voter opposition to increased taxes was less vociferous, and they marketed themselves as an alternative to more regressive forms of taxation.

The lotteries grew to become a huge business, raking in more than $56 billion in the most recent fiscal year. And despite all the dire warnings about addiction and social problems, a significant percentage of the population still plays. One study found that seventeen percent of people said they played more than once a week (the most frequent players), while another thirteen percent play one to three times a month or less. The most common demographic for players is white, high-school educated men in the middle of the income spectrum.

When you play the lottery, be sure to choose numbers that aren’t frequently picked. Picking numbers based on birthdays or other milestones is a path well-traveled by other players and will decrease your chances of winning. Moreover, it’s important to avoid sharing your winnings with friends and family members. It’s also a good idea to choose games that offer different prize amounts for different combinations of numbers. This will ensure that you have a better chance of beating the odds and becoming the next jackpot winner.