The Official Lottery

A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to holders of numbers drawn at random. A lottery may be run by a state, a charity, or even by private companies. Also known as a sweepstakes or a raffle.

The first official lottery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was organised by Queen Elizabeth I in order to raise money for the strengthening of the kingdom’s navy and for other public works. Her leaflets promised to pay the winners partly in cash, and partly in “sorts of merchaundizes” such as tapestries, wall hangings, and “good linnen cloth.” It was a kind of Elizabethan Prize Is Right, with one crucial difference: winners were guaranteed one week’s immunity from arrest for anything other than murder, piracy, or treason.

As states began to search desperately for solutions to budget crises that wouldn’t rouse an increasingly anti-tax electorate, the lottery’s advocates claimed it would fill state coffers while keeping the money in the pockets of ordinary citizens. But this fantasy, which led state after state to approve lotteries, soon proved unfounded. In its first year, for instance, New Jersey’s lottery brought in only thirty-three million dollars, or about two per cent of the state’s income.

Moreover, the high-profile campaigns that won lottery initiatives over the late-twentieth century wildly inflated the amount of money that states stood to gain. In California, for example, which passed a high-profile lottery initiative, lottery proceeds covered only about five per cent of the state’s education budget.