The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a game where people pay a nominal fee to have the chance to win a prize based on some random selection of numbers. Some prizes are cash; others can be units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. Many people consider lottery participation to be a form of gambling. There are also those who consider it a way to get back on their feet. But if you ask those who participate, they will tell you that they know it’s not likely they will win. Yet they persist in the exercise because they believe it might be their last, best or only chance to change their fortunes.

The history of lotteries stretches back to the early seventeenth century, when it was common in Europe for towns to hold lotteries to raise money for walls and town fortifications as well as to help poor people. The term comes from the Dutch word lot, meaning fate or destiny, and is a calque of Middle French loterie, which itself is a calque of Middle Dutch lotinge, meaning action of drawing lots.

In America, state lotteries started in the 1960s, and they were hailed as a painless way for states to increase the number of social safety net services that they offered without raising taxes onerously on the middle class. This arrangement held up through the post-World War II period, but it is starting to come apart now that the costs of state government are rising rapidly while more and more people are entering the workforce.