The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn and prizes, such as money or goods, are awarded to paying participants. While financial lotteries have been criticized as an addictive form of gambling, they can also raise significant sums for good causes in the public sector. In addition, the act of choosing a number and dreaming about winning is a common pastime, and people get value out of it even when they don’t win.

Lotteries are among the earliest forms of games of chance in recorded history, and they have a long and complex history. They were popular in the Roman Empire—Nero himself was a fan—and they’re attested to in biblical texts. The drawing of lots was used for everything from deciding who should receive Jesus’s garments after his crucifixion to selecting the next king of Israel. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that states began to use lotteries as a way to fund state projects. Lotteries were a solution to a problem that had never been solved before: finding ways to balance state budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which would have been unpopular with voters.

In America, Cohen argues, this initial era of state-sponsored lotteries was brought to a sudden end by corruption and mismanagement. As the scandals unfolded, advocates of legalization lost the ability to convince people that a lottery could float most of a state’s budget, and so they began to narrow their argument, claiming that it would pay for a single line item—usually education or elder care, but sometimes veterans’ benefits or public parks. This strategy made it easier for advocates to make the case that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, and that a vote against the lottery was a vote against a service that most Americans valued.

During the nineteen-sixties, as inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War accelerated, state budgets drained, and it became difficult for states to maintain their generous social safety nets without raising taxes or cutting services, which were highly unpopular with voters. The obsession with unimaginable wealth, including the dream of winning the lottery, intensified in this era, and the national promise that hard work and education would provide working families with security and prosperity faded.

In the US, people in their twenties and thirties play more often than people in other age groups—the percentage playing lotteries rises to around 70% of that group, then dips slightly to about two-thirds for people in their forties, fifties and sixties, and falls to around 45% for people over 70. And while the odds of winning are low, a big prize can still improve lives. In fact, many people find that they prefer a one-in-ten chance of winning a big prize to a five-in-ten chance of winning something smaller. And so they keep buying tickets. For most, the game is not just a form of entertainment but a way to make life better.