The History of the Lottery

A lot of people play the lottery. Some buy one ticket a week and that’s all they’ll ever spend on anything in their life. They’re disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. But the idea that they can win a jackpot of a few hundred million dollars is enticing. This is why lotteries are so profitable.

But the odds are long. It’s also a risky proposition for the average player. Lottery players as a group contribute billions to government receipts that could otherwise be saved for retirement or college tuition. They are also foregoing opportunities to invest that money in private enterprises, including their own homes.

Despite these risks, state lotteries have enjoyed broad public support and remain popular even when states face economic stress. In fact, the state lottery is usually more popular than other revenue sources like sales taxes or income taxes. But the reasons for that support are complex. Lottery supporters include convenience store owners who sell tickets; lottery suppliers, who donate heavily to state political campaigns and often get contracts with the lottery; teachers (in those states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); state legislators, who become accustomed to the regular flow of new revenue; and finally, the general public, which plays the games on a regular basis.

It’s probably not surprising to learn that the word “lottery” comes from the Italian lotto adopted into English in the mid-sixteenth century. The original meaning was “a portion” or “lot.” The entrants are literally playing for their “lot.” The word’s evolution, however, is less interesting than its contemporary use.