The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game where players pay a small sum for a chance to win a larger sum. Its basic elements are a means of recording identities and stake amounts, a mechanism for selecting winners, and the prize money itself. In modern lotteries, these are usually digitized and computerized. Each bettor writes his or her name on a ticket, which is then deposited with the lottery organization for later shuffling and selection in the drawing. The ticket may be a numbered receipt, a physical card, or a paper ballot. The prize money is awarded if a bettor’s number matches the winning numbers, which are selected randomly by computers.

Lotteries are a popular form of gambling, but they are often controversial. While some defend them as a tax on stupidity (or a way to reward honest workers), others argue that they are simply a response to economic fluctuations. In fact, as Cohen shows, lottery sales tend to increase when incomes fall and unemployment and poverty rates rise, and are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.

In colonial America, lotteries financed everything from church bells and canals to roads, schools, libraries, and colleges. Yale and Princeton, for example, were partly founded with them; and the Continental Congress even tried to hold a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War. This despite the strong Protestant aversion to gambling, including dice and playing cards, even in private homes.

The lottery became a major source of revenue in many states, especially in those with generous social safety nets. But in the nineteen-sixties, as the cost of welfare and defense escalated, and growth was slowed by inflation, state finances began to slide. It was no longer possible for a single tax increase to raise enough revenue to balance the budget, and so lawmakers turned to the lottery for help.

To attract the attention of voters, the jackpots of some lotteries reached staggering heights. As Cohen explains, this strategy worked well in the beginning: it made the games seem more spectacular, and raised the odds of winning. The more impressive the odds, the more people wanted to play.

Once the jackpots grew too large to ignore, lottery advocates began to change their message. Instead of advocating the lottery as a state silver bullet that would float a whole budget, they shifted to arguing that it could fund a particular government service—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This strategy allowed them to avoid the charge that they were promoting gambling. It also allowed them to appeal to wealthy voters, who are more likely to play the lottery than poor ones—but who buy fewer tickets and generally spend less of their incomes on it. They are also more likely to be aware of the odds, which can make or break a lottery. But, as a result, they are also more likely to lose.