The Evolution of the Lottery


The practice of determining fates and distributing property by drawing lots has a long record in human history. Among the many recorded examples are keno slips found in the Chinese Han dynasty, used to finance government projects; and lottery games in the ancient Roman Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries also played a role in the establishment of the first English colonies, and the American Revolution. President George Washington sponsored a lottery to fund the construction of roads and buildings at Harvard and Yale.

State lotteries are widely considered to be a form of legalized gambling. Critics argue that the promotion of gambling by state authorities is at cross-purposes with a public interest in protecting people from addiction and from other harms. Moreover, because lotteries are run as businesses with the aim of maximizing revenues, advertising necessarily targets those groups most likely to spend money on them.

Historically, state lotteries have consisted of traditional raffles in which tickets are sold for a drawing at a future date. But innovations in the 1970s led to the introduction of instant games such as scratch-off tickets. These are sold for a small price at the time of purchase and allow players to choose their own numbers, rather than waiting weeks or months for the results of a drawing. In addition to these types of games, many states now offer a variety of other products such as electronic scratch-off tickets and online gambling.

In general, lotteries have expanded rapidly and increased state revenues, but they do not always maintain their growth rate. Many observers believe that this is because of a lack of a long-term vision by lottery officials. The evolution of state lotteries is a classic example of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview.

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