The History of the Lottery

The drawing of lots for property or other rights is a common practice that dates back centuries. It was used in ancient Rome to determine ownership of slaves and in Europe in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. The lottery is a modern-day version of this practice and is regulated by the states where it is played.

The earliest recorded state-sponsored lotteries offered tickets for sale with prizes in the form of money, and were held in the Low Countries in the first half of the 15th century. The word lotteries probably came from Middle Dutch lotterie “action of drawing lots,” or via Middle French l’action de la lotterie, a calque on the Middle Dutch verb lotte “to draw” (see dictionaries).

People who play the lottery usually stick with their lucky numbers, such as birthdays and anniversaries, Clotfelter says. They may also follow a number-picking system of their own design, such as playing only numbers that have appeared more often in previous drawings.

In addition, many lower-income people believe that winning the lottery is their only chance to escape poverty. Cook and other researchers have shown that the regressive effect of lotteries is more pronounced among lower-income people. Those with annual incomes under $10,000 spend more per capita on lottery tickets than those with higher incomes, and high school dropouts spend four times as much as college graduates. In addition, African-Americans spend five times as much as Caucasians.