The History of the Lottery


The practice of making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. In the late Middle Ages, lottery games were popular in Europe; in fact, the word “lottery” is probably derived from the Dutch noun lot (“fate”), and probably via French loterie.

State-sponsored lotteries – wherein individuals purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize if their numbers match those randomly spit out by machines – have also been around for centuries. In colonial America, they raised money for everything from paving streets to building colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. Lotteries were the subject of public debate in both England and America, but remained popular.

In modern times, lotteries have become very popular and profitable. In addition to the large prize amounts, many are organized so that a percentage of the proceeds is donated to good causes. These philanthropic features have helped to maintain lotteries’ broad public appeal.

A number of issues have arisen, however, that focus attention on the more specific characteristics of lottery operations. These include the prevalence of compulsive gambling, the regressive impact on low-income communities, and other problems of public policy. One of the most important issues is that the overall growth of lottery revenues has slowed, and states are now facing declining profits and competition from other types of gaming, such as video poker and keno. A second issue relates to the way that prizes are distributed. Winners may choose to receive their winnings in a lump sum or as annual installments.