The History of the Lottery


The practice of making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history. The Old Testament instructed Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites and divide land by lot; Roman emperors used lots to distribute property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. The modern lottery draws on this history. It is a popular source of revenue and an important part of many state governments’ budgets. Supporters promote the lottery as a painless form of taxation. Politicians use it to siphon money away from illegal gambling, and voters are often swayed by the promise that proceeds will benefit a particular public good (most commonly education).

Most states hold a lottery, offering players an opportunity to win prizes from small to large amounts of money. The prize money is drawn from the total pool of funds after expenses such as promotion and taxes have been deducted. Prizes vary widely and are usually predetermined, although some allow participants to choose their own numbers.

The popularity of lotteries is rooted in people’s love to gamble and the desire to win something valuable for little effort. But there are also serious moral concerns. Lottery critics contend that, far from being a boon to the state, it expands the number of people who gamble and are exposed to addictive behavior, and that it is a regressive tax on low-income households (as opposed to, for example, a sales tax, which everyone pays at the same rate regardless of wealth). They say that lotteries also prey on the illusory hopes of poor people.

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