Lotteries are games in which numbers or symbols are drawn by machines or people to determine a prize. They have been used for centuries. In fact, the Old Testament instructed Moses to conduct a census and divide land by lot, while Roman emperors used lots for everything from giving away slaves to entertaining guests during Saturnalia festivities. It is thought that the word “lottery” comes from the Dutch phrase lijmte vrije (loosely translated as “fate free”), a play on words from Middle Dutch loette (“fate”) and ruimte (“free”).
The lottery was brought to America by European colonists and quickly became popular in various states, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Lotteries were often viewed as a way to obtain “voluntary taxes,” and public lotteries provided funds for a wide range of projects, including many American colleges.
When lottery games were first introduced, state revenues grew rapidly, but have since leveled off and even begun to decline. Nevertheless, the industry continues to grow, mainly through innovations such as new types of games and increased advertising.
Lottery defenders argue that the game is not a tax on stupidity and that players rationally choose to spend money on tickets that they know are unlikely to win. However, research shows that lottery sales rise and fall with economic fluctuations, and that there are significant differences in play by socio-economic groups. For example, men play more than women; blacks and Hispanics play more than whites; and the young and elderly play less than those in the middle age range.