The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of prizes. It is popular in many countries around the world and is used to fund public works and other social projects. Its origin is unclear, but it is believed to be an ancient practice, dating back to the casting of lots for everything from who would become emperor to who should keep Jesus’s garments after his Crucifixion. It is estimated that a third of the world’s population plays the lottery at least once in their lifetimes.

The history of the lottery is a complex one, and Cohen’s book is rich with detail. He explains how the practice spread from England to America’s European settlement colonies, often despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Lotteries were even used to help finance the Revolutionary War, and they continued afterward as a way for states to raise money. In the nineteenth century, private lotteries were also common as a means to sell products or property for more than could be obtained in a regular sale. They were particularly popular in the Northeast and Rust Belt, and helped finance a number of American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and William and Mary.

In the twentieth century, state-run lotteries became increasingly prevalent. Unlike most forms of gambling, which involve the risk of losing money, the prize in a lottery is determined by drawing a number or numbers from a larger pool of participants. This makes it easier to control the amount of money being risked, and allows for larger jackpots. It was also a popular way for states to avoid raising taxes, which was politically unpopular in a time of increasing income inequality and rising health-care costs.

State lottery officials know that a disproportionate percentage of players are low-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. Their message is that winning a prize, however small, will improve their lives. They also use the psychology of addiction, employing strategies similar to those of tobacco or video-game manufacturers.

Lottery promoters have also been careful to frame their message in ways that obscure the regressivity of their product. For example, they have been quick to point out that winning the lottery is a form of entertainment, which helps to blur the connection between gambling and poverty.

The popularity of the lottery began to wane in the nineteen-sixties, as growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with an aging population, increasing inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, state governments found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. No longer able to sell the lottery as a silver bullet, advocates shifted strategy. They stopped trying to argue that a lottery would float the whole budget and began to claim that it would fund a single line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or parks or aid for veterans. This more focused approach made it easy for voters to sign on, because they didn’t have to admit that they were voting to endorse gambling.

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