Search for:

The Evolution of the Lottery


The casting of lots to decide matters with a material dimension has a long history, including several references in the Bible. But lottery-style betting on money prizes is considerably younger, appearing in the Low Countries in the 15th century for town fortifications and to help the poor.

The modern revival of state lotteries began with New Hampshire in 1964, and has spread rapidly. While the arguments in favor and against adoption, as well as the structure of resulting lotteries, vary among states, there are some striking similarities in their evolution.

One important issue is that the lottery’s business model requires a large base of regular players. The prize amounts must be attractive enough to encourage players to buy tickets regularly. But the cost of the ticket must also be kept reasonable, so that the average amount of money a player wins per draw is not too high. That is a challenging balance to strike, and there are some interesting ways that states have attempted to do so.

For example, by increasing the size of jackpots in rollover drawings. Such enlarged prize sizes attract attention and press coverage, and can push sales. But the size of the prize must be carefully balanced against the percentage that goes for administration, profits, and promotional expenses, and the proportion available for winners.

Income is another issue, as evidenced by the fact that lottery play is heavier in middle-income neighborhoods than in low-income areas. In addition, the most avid lottery players tend to be young and white.