The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record, including several instances in the Bible. Lottery games involving prizes of money or goods became common in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Government-sponsored lotteries have been used to raise funds for towns, wars, colleges, and public works projects. The term lottery is most likely from a French word denoting “fate” or “chance,” perhaps derived from Middle Dutch loterie, a compound of Middle Dutch lotte (“fate”) and legere (to draw).

Lotteries were introduced to the United States by British colonists. They were initially popular, and a number of public lotteries were held in the first 30 years of the nation’s existence. Privately sponsored lotteries raised money for a variety of purposes, including the construction of American colleges (including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union).

Critics argue that lotteries promote addictive gambling behavior, represent a major regressive tax on lower-income families, and contribute to social problems. They also assert that the state has an inherent conflict between its desire to increase revenues and its responsibility to protect the public welfare. In addition, critics note that lottery players are disproportionately drawn from middle-income neighborhoods and not low-income ones. A study by Clotfelter and Cook in 1970 found that “most of the people winning large sums of money in the state lotteries are from wealthier areas.” The same trend is evident in privately sponsored lottery games.