The Evolution of the Lottery


The practice of drawing lots to determine property ownership dates back to ancient times. According to the Old Testament, Moses is instructed to take a census of the people of Israel and divide the land among them by lot. Lotteries were used by the Roman emperors to give away property and slaves. In ancient Rome, they were a popular way to raise money for towns, wars, and public-works projects. A lottery was a fun way to entertain guests.

As of 2003, lottery sales in the United States topped $1 billion in 15 states. New York, Texas, and Massachusetts accounted for the largest percentage of total lottery sales. Other states and Puerto Rico soon followed suit, with twenty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, establishing lotteries during the decade. The lottery became entrenched in the Northeast by the end of the 1970s. It also proved to be a good way to raise money for public projects without increasing taxes, as well as appeal to a large and mostly Catholic population.

While the NGISC report does not identify whether lottery players are poor or not, it does reveal that the poorest Americans spend more than any other income group. Moreover, high school dropouts spend more than college graduates and low-income households spend more than their higher-income counterparts. Although lottery sales are a lucrative industry, people rarely buy tickets in their neighborhood. Higher-income shoppers and workers pass by lottery outlets, but do not live in those areas.

Many states operate their own lotteries, and the profits from these activities are used to support various government programs. In August 2004, forty states operated their lotteries. Eighty-three percent of the population lived in a state that operated a lottery. According to the National Lottery Administration, lottery revenues accounted for around 2.2% of state revenue. This amount is relatively small compared to income and general sales tax revenues, which combined account for more than seventy-five percent of state budgets.

Modern lotteries have expanded their scope beyond the traditional weekly or monthly drawings to include a variety of games. Several states have partnered with major sports franchises or companies. The New Jersey Lottery Commission, for example, announced a Harley-Davidson motorcycle scratch game prize. Other brand-name promotions have featured famous sports figures, celebrities, and even cartoon characters. These merchandising deals benefit the company and the players through product exposure and advertising.

The lottery first entered the national arena in the United States when New Hampshire voters approved it in 1964. The funds raised through the lottery would support local education, and it avoided the necessity of enacting income and sales taxes. New Hampshire lottery was an instant success, and ninety percent of the tickets were purchased by out-of-state residents. Success in the lottery industry inspired neighboring northeastern states to implement their own lottery. Within ten years, every state had a lottery.

There are several reasons why a lotteries are popular. Most often, they raise money for social good. In the Old Testament, Moses divided up the land among the Israelites. In the Roman era, the Lottery was reportedly used by emperors to give away property and slaves. Later on, British colonists brought the lottery to the United States. From 1844 to 1859, ten states banned the lottery, but this practice was not widely accepted.