The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people purchase tickets with numbers on them, and prizes are awarded to those who have winning tickets. The games are often run by state or other organizations as a way to raise funds. The first recorded lotteries appeared in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, but the history of the modern game goes back centuries. In colonial America, lottery profits financed roads, canals, bridges, libraries, and churches. During the French and Indian War, lotteries helped finance colleges and militias. Today, Americans spend billions on the games every week and believe they can make a difference in their lives by winning the big jackpot.

In fact, the odds of winning are very slim, and most players should consider their purchases to be entertainment and not an investment. But the games are not free to operate: There are employees who design scratch-offs, record live drawing events, keep websites up to date, and work at lottery headquarters to help people after they win. These are the costs of a lottery, and a percentage of the proceeds go to pay those workers and to cover other expenses.

When the modern lottery became popular in the nineteen-sixties, it was a response to a crisis in state funding. Faced with soaring population growth and inflation, and with the cost of the Vietnam War increasing rapidly, states were running out of money to maintain existing services. But instituting income or sales taxes was politically unfeasible, so politicians turned to the lottery.

Cohen argues that the lottery was initially viewed as a “budgetary miracle,” and for good reason: It offered a way for states to make large sums of revenue appear seemingly out of thin air. As a result, lotteries allowed politicians to maintain current services without raising taxes and without risking public disapproval at the polls.

But in the long run, this strategy proved a disaster. The lottery soon came under scrutiny as a form of gambling, and states began to reduce or eliminate the prizes. As a result, many of the public’s expectations for the games were frustrated and they lost their appeal.

To reverse this trend, Cohen argues that lawmakers need to change the way they talk about the lottery. Instead of promoting it as a magic bullet that can float most of a state’s budget, they need to focus on the specific services that will be funded by its proceeds, such as education or elder care. He suggests that this narrower message will allow legalization advocates to reframe the debate: A vote for the lottery is not a vote for gambling but a vote in favor of veterans or education.

But changing the dialogue will take time, as the political and ideological battle over the lottery continues to rage on. Until then, the country’s millions of gamblers will continue to ply their luck for a shot at becoming millionaires. If you’re lucky enough, we hope you enjoy your winnings.