The Truth About Lottery Games

The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record (including several instances in the Bible), but lotteries that offer money prizes are much more recent, having first appeared in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders as a way for towns to raise funds for repair work. Francis I of France established the first French state lottery in 1539 to boost his kingdom’s finances.

In America, the lotteries of the 17th and 18th centuries financed the early English colonies. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the 19th century, they fueled the expansion of railroads and urban infrastructure. In the postwar era, states embraced lotteries as a source of revenue without having to increase taxes on working people and families.

People play lottery games for a variety of reasons. Many simply like to gamble; the prospect of winning a big prize is an inextricable part of the appeal. There’s also, of course, the intangible belief that a tiny sliver of hope can overcome the long odds against winning.

But the reality is that most people don’t win. In fact, some states are phasing out their lotteries. Others are reducing the size of their jackpots, or increasing the cost of tickets. Some critics argue that, because the poor make up a disproportionate share of lottery players, these games are a disguised tax on those least able to afford it. Nevertheless, the vast majority of states that still sponsor them enjoy the support of their constituents.