The Evolution of the Lottery

A lottery is a gambling game in which tickets are sold and prizes are awarded by chance. It is an activity that goes back to ancient times; the Old Testament includes instructions on dividing property by lot, and the Romans used lotteries as a form of entertainment during Saturnalian feasts and other gatherings. The word is derived from the Latin verb lottare, which means “to cast lots.”

In colonial America, the lottery played a major role in paving streets, building wharves, and financing churches and schools. Lottery profits helped fund the expedition against Canada that led to the founding of Harvard and Yale Universities, and even George Washington himself sponsored a lottery in 1768 to raise money for fortifications during the French and Indian War.

State lotteries have a remarkably similar history across the country. The establishment of each one begins with a piecemeal, incremental approach, and the evolving industry is almost always driven by a desire to increase revenue. Lottery revenues typically expand rapidly, level off, and begin to decline after a few years. In the 1970s, new games introduced a sense of instant gratification to the lottery experience by eliminating the need to wait for the results of a drawing weeks or months in the future.

These innovations have arguably changed the lottery industry for the worse, shifting its focus away from its original mission to profit state governments. Despite this, the overall message remains the same: people just plain like to gamble.

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