The History of the Official Lottery
In 15th-17th century Europe, lottery games were not just popular pastimes — they also raised funds for all kinds of projects from town fortifications to helping the poor. Then came the American colonies, which used lotteries to finance their settlement and expansion. In fact, the first official lotteries in the United States were conducted by the Virginia Company to raise money for its colonial venture chartered by King Charles I. Lottery proceeds helped establish the first permanent settlement in Jamestown, and they later helped build churches, libraries, and some of America’s earliest and most prestigious universities.
In modern times, state lotteries have come into their own. They’ve become big business, and are a major source of revenue for many state governments. But despite their popularity, there are some questions about whether or not these games are actually good for the public. In this article, we’ll look at the history of lotteries and some of the issues that have been raised about them.
The casting of lots to determine fates has a long record in human history, going back as far as the Bible. But lotteries involving prizes of money have been around for a considerably shorter time, with the earliest recorded ones occurring in the fourteenth-century Low Countries, where they were used to raise money for town fortifications and charity. By the fifteenth-century, the lottery was common in England as well.
Initially, the state-run lotteries in the United States were a response to state financial problems that emerged as a result of a combination of population growth, inflation, and federal funding cuts. The problem for politicians was that they had to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which proved highly unpopular with voters. Lotteries were hailed as budgetary miracles, a way for states to bring in revenues without resorting to either of these measures.
As the nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt intensified, the popularity of lotteries grew in the Northeast and Rust Belt. New Hampshire became the first to adopt one in 1964, and it inspired thirteen more states to follow suit in a very short period of time.
In most cases, the state officials who made the decision to adopt a lottery did so with little or no knowledge of how it might work in the long term. They may have thought that the money could help them reduce or eliminate other taxes, or that it would provide an alternative to cutting programs for the poor. But those decisions are often made in piecemeal fashion, with the authority and pressures on lottery officials scattered across multiple branches of government and further fragmented within each branch. This often results in policy making that is sloppy and inefficient.
It’s important to remember that a lottery is not an effective substitute for sound fiscal planning. It’s not uncommon for lottery revenues to grow dramatically at first, then level off and even begin to decline. This happens because of what is called “boredom,” and it’s the reason that lottery officials constantly introduce new games to keep revenues growing.