The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine winners. In the United States, most state governments run lotteries, which have a variety of different games, such as daily games where players select three or four numbers from a pool, and a game called Lotto, in which players try to match six numbers. Most states also have scratch-off games that offer smaller prizes, such as free tickets or cash. Lotteries have a long history, and they are an important source of state revenue.

The lottery originated in medieval Europe, where people drew lots to determine marriages and inheritances, as well as other legal matters. In the fourteenth century, it became common in the Low Countries, which used them to fund town fortifications and charity. The practice spread to England, where it was embraced by Elizabeth I in 1567 for the purpose of “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets cost ten shillings, a substantial sum at the time, and each one served as a get-out-of-jail card (except in the case of murder, treason, or piracy).

In colonial America, lotteries played an important role in bringing European settlement to America, and they were often used for public works projects. Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British, and George Washington sponsored an unsuccessful lottery to finance a road across Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In the nineteenth century, state governments largely stopped using lotteries as a major source of revenue, but by the late-twentieth century they were reviving them.

State officials figured that the lottery could replace much of the money now being spent on social welfare programs and wars, as well as other government costs. Advocates began to sell it as a painless alternative to raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were politically unpopular. They also tried to reassure voters that proceeds from the lottery would be invested in a single line item, usually a popular, nonpartisan service such as education, elder care, or public parks.

Cohen’s story begins in the nineteen-seventies, when growing awareness of the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state funding. As the nation’s economic boom faded, income inequality grew wider, job security and pensions declined, and health-care costs rose. In short, the old national promise that hard work and personal responsibility would provide for a secure future eroded.

The result was that people became more obsessed with winning the big jackpot than ever before, and they turned to the lottery to fill the void. Despite the warnings of experts that the trend was unsustainable, state governments started a new wave of lotteries, and today they have become one of our most widespread forms of gambling. Billboards across the country dangle the prospect of instant riches, and the lure is irresistible.