The casting of lots has a long record in human history, including multiple instances recorded in the Bible. But lotteries that offer tickets for sale with prize money in the form of cash have a much shorter history. The first publicly documented ones — in the Low Countries, at least — were held in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The idea is simple: give people a chance to win a big sum of money, and they’ll buy tickets. This gives the promoters a good return on investment and, as a bonus, the winners get to change their lives for the better.
But there’s more to lottery than that. It offers an irresistible promise of instant wealth in an era when inequality and social mobility have exploded. That’s why you see those billboards on the highway announcing the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot, and people respond to them with an inextricable human impulse to play.
Historically, state lotteries have followed a similar pattern: They legislate a monopoly for themselves; establish a public corporation or agency to run the games (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits); start with a modest number of relatively simple games; then, driven by pressure for increased revenues and the desire to maintain public interest, progressively expand their offerings by adding new games. But the most significant innovation in the industry came in the 1970s with the introduction of scratch-off tickets. These allow the public to buy a ticket without waiting for a future drawing, thus increasing revenue potential and reducing the time between purchase and payout.
While some states have reverted to traditional raffles, most still offer the newer types of instant games. The result has been a steady rise in lottery sales. In the United States, for example, lottery revenues grew by almost 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.
In addition to providing entertainment and funding charities, the lottery also helps make a few lucky people millionaires. And while it’s true that gambling can have a negative impact on some people, especially those who become addicted to it or are obsessed with specific “lucky” numbers, the overall effect has been positive. As a society we need to recognize the value of the lottery and its ability to create social change, not be afraid of it. It has brought us the AIDS prevention campaign, cancer research and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it can do more. It’s just a matter of whether we have the courage to support it. It’s worth a try.