Lottery is a popular game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winner of a prize. The prizes vary from cash to goods or services. Most state and national lotteries are heavily regulated to ensure fair play and financial integrity. However, the lottery is not without its critics. Some of the most common criticisms focus on its perceived impact on lower-income groups and its tendency to generate addiction. Other criticisms concern issues of public policy. Despite these challenges, state-sponsored lotteries continue to grow in popularity.

In the United States, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico currently have lotteries. The history of the lottery in these jurisdictions reflects many underlying dynamics and is characterized by ups and downs. Lottery revenues often expand rapidly following their introduction, but they then level off and sometimes begin to decline. To sustain revenue levels, lotteries introduce new games to maintain interest and excitement. New Hampshire pioneered the modern state lottery in 1964, and its success led to rapid expansion throughout the Northeast. By the end of the decade, 12 states had established lotteries.

Historically, state lotteries have won widespread public approval by portraying them as an important source of “painless” tax revenue. This argument is especially effective in times of economic stress, when people fear state government cuts or tax increases. It is not surprising, then, that many states have introduced lotteries when their budgetary situation is at its most vulnerable.

Lotteries have become a major component of state and federal governments, raising more than $100 billion per year. Yet they remain controversial, generating frequent debate over their role in society and the extent to which they exacerbate inequality. This article examines the history of lotteries in the United States and explores three questions that are central to this debate.

The first recorded lotteries took place in the Low Countries during the 15th century, when towns held public drawing to raise money for town fortifications and other projects. The first English state lottery was held in 1569, and the name “lottery” probably derives from Middle Dutch loterie, itself a calque on the French phrase for the action of drawing lots. In 1748, Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to raise funds to establish a militia for defense against the French. John Hancock operated one to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington ran a lottery to finance a road over a mountain pass in Virginia.