The History and Problems of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random to determine winners. The winnings may be money, property, or services. People play for both fun and as a way to improve their lives, and the lottery contributes billions of dollars each year to the economy. But this activity is not without its problems. People can become addicted to gambling and spend far more than they can afford to lose. The Bible warns against coveting the possessions of others (Exodus 20:17). Lotteries encourage covetousness and lead to a false hope that money can solve all of life’s problems. This article explores the history of the lottery and provides some biblical principles that can help people avoid becoming hooked on this addictive activity.

While the casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long record in human history, public lotteries offering tickets with prize money are relatively recent. The first recorded lottery was organized in Rome by the emperor Augustus, with prizes of articles of unequal value. In the 15th century, the towns of Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges held lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets with prizes in the form of cash were held in 1466.

The introduction of lotteries in the United States has followed a similar pattern. A state passes legislation to establish a monopoly for itself; chooses a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery, rather than licensing a private firm in return for a share of profits; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure to raise revenues, gradually expands its offerings. Lotteries have generally won broad public approval, even in times of economic stress when the prospect of tax increases or cuts in essential government programs is most feared.

A central issue in the debate about the legitimacy of state-sponsored lotteries is their regressive nature. Regardless of the arguments in favor of them, studies suggest that lotteries tend to draw players from middle-income neighborhoods and that far fewer people in low-income neighborhoods participate. In addition, a substantial portion of the proceeds from ticket sales is used for organization costs and promotional expenses. Of the remaining pool of prizes, only a small percentage goes to the winners.

Despite these concerns, lottery proponents insist that they are justified in using public funds to promote and operate the games because the money is spent on a legitimate public service. But this claim ignores the evidence that the regressive nature of lotteries makes them a harmful social policy and the fact that the large majority of their proceeds are consumed by a minority of players who use the lottery as a way to make money. Moreover, the argument that lotteries provide a “painless” source of revenue fails to take into account the fact that this money comes from taxpayers, many of whom would not otherwise support such a policy.