The History of the Lottery

Across the country, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lottery games. The six that don’t, including Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Utah (and Nevada, which allows gambling), are motivated by religious concerns or a sense that the state already gets enough money from other sources. Still, these lotteries contribute billions to government receipts that many people could be using for retirement or college tuition.

The earliest known lotteries were organized by the Roman Empire, and ticket holders would receive prizes in the form of items like dinnerware. The modern game originated in the 17th century, when Dutch cities started to hold public lotteries to raise funds for a variety of purposes. These include town fortifications, but also a number of charitable and civic uses.

In the immediate post-World War II period, many states saw lottery play as a painless way to supplement their social safety nets without raising taxes on the middle and working classes. This was a naive and short-sighted vision, as we now know.

The poorest people, those in the bottom quintile of income, don’t have the discretionary cash to spend on tickets and may suffer from addiction or other problems that make it harder for them to get ahead. And, as Vox has previously reported, lotteries tend to be regressive, with sales concentrated in poor neighborhoods and other low-income areas.