The History of the Lottery


In the fifteenth century, towns in the Low Countries used lotteries to build town fortifications and help the poor. The first recorded lottery game in England was a lottery for the redress of crimes, such as murder and treason, in the seventeenth century. After World War II, states began to use the lottery to fund a growing array of state services that couldn’t be paid for by comparatively onerous taxes on the middle class and working class.

The success of lottery as a way of raising state revenue was built on the fact that people loved the idea of winning big, and in particular they wanted to win a large jackpot. Lottery officials realized that they could increase ticket sales by making the odds of winning absurdly low, and the more absurd the odds became, the more people bought tickets.

Using a formula that has been successful for marketers of everything from cigarettes to video games, lottery commissioners manipulated the odds to keep people buying tickets. They raised the prize caps and made it easier to win by adding more numbers, so that, for instance, New York’s Lotto started with odds of one-in-3.8 million and ended up with a one-in-fifty-five chance.

Despite these absurdly low odds, a large portion of Americans continue to play the lottery. They spend $80 billion per year on tickets, which is more than the country’s annual budget for education. Those who play the lottery often think they’re doing a good thing for their community, but in truth they’re wasting their money and ruining their lives.