The official lottery is a state-run, government-sponsored game of chance where tickets are sold with prizes in the form of money. It was a popular way to finance public projects in the colonial Americas, including roads, libraries, schools, churches, colleges, canals, and bridges.
The word “lottery” comes from the Middle Dutch loterie meaning “fate” or “chance.” It may also have been borrowed from Middle French lotterye, which refers to the action of drawing lots. It was first used in the Netherlands, where the earliest lotteries to offer tickets for sale with prizes in the form of money were held in the 15th century.
As the United States became more prosperous, politicians began considering state-run lotteries as a source of revenue. They argued that the proceeds of lotteries would fill state coffers without imposing additional taxes, leaving money in the pockets of average citizens.
But the evidence was stark: despite proponents’ projections, lottery revenues quickly proved inadequate. In New Jersey, for example, the first lottery brought in only thirty-three million dollars, a paltry two per cent of the state’s revenue.
In response, lottery advocates began arguing that lottery funds should be earmarked for specific services. Rather than filling state coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars, they argued, lottery revenues should pay for single line items like education, elder care, and public parks.
This narrower approach was a success for many voters, who saw it as a way to fund public services they otherwise would not support. It also allowed advocates to avoid the ethical concerns that had kept them from promoting lotteries in the past.