The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a process by which prizes, usually money, are awarded. It is a form of gambling, and the odds of winning depend entirely on luck. It may also be used in decision making when resources are limited, for example by selecting among equally competing applicants for a job, or by filling a vacancy in a sports team or school. In its most basic form, a lottery involves purchasing a ticket and then having it drawn randomly to determine the winner. There are many different types of lotteries and it is important to understand the rules and regulations before participating.

The history of the lottery goes back thousands of years, as the casting of lots has been used to choose everything from the successor of a Roman emperor to the clothing worn by Jesus after his Crucifixion. Lotteries became particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, where they were used to finance both private and public ventures, including road construction, canals, bridges, churches, schools and colleges. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery in order to raise funds to help defend Philadelphia against the British during the American Revolution.

Throughout much of the 20th century, state lotteries were widely seen as silver bullets for state budget problems, a way to avoid raising taxes on middle-class and working-class taxpayers while generating enough revenue to support a wide range of social services, from education to elder care and public parks. But as Cohen explains, this arrangement was always a precarious one. It came at a time when income disparities widened, job security was declining, and the long-held national promise that hard work and personal responsibility would produce financial security for future generations had essentially been abandoned.

In the immediate postwar period, states could expand their programs without burdening the middle class with higher taxes, but in the late twentieth century that began to change as tax revolts gained momentum and the economy weakened. State lotteries responded by retooling their pitch to entice voters. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float the entire state budget, advocates began to emphasize the fact that it would fund a single line item, almost always education but occasionally other government services such as elder care or veterans’ assistance.

This new strategy allowed legalization advocates to present their cause as a virtuous alternative to draconian cuts in other areas of state government. It also made it easy for them to frame the debate in a nonpartisan way, so that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling but for a government service that the public favored.

By the early twenty-first century, state lotteries had become an entrenched part of the culture. But the fact that they are run like businesses, with a clear focus on maximizing revenues and a relentless emphasis on advertising, means that they often operate at cross-purposes with other state priorities and serve only to reinforce our pervasive belief in an unachievable dream of instant riches.

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