The History of the Lottery


Lottery is the most popular form of gambling around the world, and its roots go back centuries. The Old Testament mentions the casting of lots to determine fate, and Roman emperors gave away property, slaves, and even military commanders by lottery.

The modern lottery traces its origins to the sixteenth century, when the Low Countries began offering numbered tickets for prizes such as money and goods, including livestock, to raise funds for town fortifications or to help the poor. The first recorded public lottery took place in 1466 at Bruges, Belgium.

In the early years of America, lotteries were tangled up with the slave trade in surprising ways. George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery whose prizes included human beings, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion. And like other forms of gambling, lottery sales were highly responsive to economic fluctuations; they increased as incomes fell, unemployment rose, and poverty rates rose.

But the money from ticket purchases did not come out of thin air; it came from somewhere, and studies have suggested that it comes disproportionately from poor neighborhoods, minorities, and people with addiction problems. Moreover, as Vox’s Alvin Chang has reported, the lottery’s marketing strategies tend to focus on advertising in neighborhoods that are disproportionately black or Latino.

Once these realities were widely understood, lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the idea as a statewide silver bullet, began to narrow the scope of their argument. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they argued that it would cover a specific line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or aid for veterans.