The Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is one of the most popular ways for state governments to raise money. Its advocates have argued that it is a “painless source of revenue” because people voluntarily spend their money for the benefit of the state. However, in practice this is not the case. State lotteries are often a regressive source of revenue and they generate little goodwill among the general public.

The drawing of lots for ownership or other rights is recorded in many ancient documents, and lotteries began to be used in the Low Countries around 1512. In colonial-era America they were widely used to finance towns, wars, colleges and public works projects. George Washington held a lottery to fund construction of the Mountain Road and Benjamin Franklin sponsored one to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

In the 1960s and 1970s a revival of lotteries began in New Hampshire. Inspired by the success of these lotteries, more and more states adopted them. Today 37 states and the District of Columbia have active lotteries.

Most modern lotteries offer several prizes, including a grand prize of a large amount of money or a car. In addition, many offer “scratch games” that feature brand-name products. These promotions are lucrative for both the lotteries and the merchandising companies; they also promote a particular image of the lottery as an innocent, family-friendly game. The promotion of lotteries as harmless has obscured the fact that they are a form of gambling that affects the poor and problem gamblers in particular.