Lottery has long been a popular pastime in most states. As of 2021, people in the United States spent about $100 billion on tickets—making it the most popular form of gambling. It’s also a big contributor to state budgets, which makes it attractive to politicians looking to fill holes in their coffers without provoking voters with higher taxes. But a look at lottery numbers reveals that the odds of winning a large jackpot are not as good as they once were. This has led many states to lift prize caps, making the likelihood of winning much smaller. In the process, the average ticket has become more expensive.
In the old days, it didn’t take much to make the average person want to play a lottery. A big prize was enough to get most of us to drop ten shillings (a substantial sum back then) on a ticket that might or might not win. That’s why, in the 17th century, it was common in the Low Countries for local governments to use lottery profits for things like paving streets and constructing town fortifications. The idea caught on in America, too, as a way of raising money for public projects without rousing the ire of anti-tax voters.
The idea of making decisions or determining fates by the casting of lots has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. But putting up prizes for the winners was more novel. The first recorded public lottery to give away cash prizes was a Roman affair held for municipal repairs, while the first in the English-speaking world took place in 1466. That’s when a city in Bruges, now part of Belgium, used a lottery to raise money for the rebuilding of its town walls.
Over the centuries, lottery games became increasingly popular as a means of making money and of redistributing wealth. In colonial America, they helped finance the building of Harvard and Yale, and George Washington sponsored one to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. But they were often tangled up with the slave trade, too, as in this story about Denmark Vesey, who won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.
Today, the main argument for state-sponsored lotteries is that they’re a form of “painless revenue,” with players voluntarily spending their money to fund public uses. But this line of reasoning is flawed in several ways. For starters, it overlooks the fact that rich people buy fewer lottery tickets than poor ones. In fact, according to the consumer financial company Bankrate, those earning more than fifty thousand dollars a year spend one percent of their income on lottery tickets while those earning less do so at a thirteen-percent rate. This disparity suggests that the lottery does not really raise the kinds of revenues its proponents claim.