The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a gambling game in which players pay for a ticket or tickets, select groups of numbers (or have machines randomly spit out numbers) and win prizes if the numbers they choose match those drawn by a random number generator. It is a popular activity in the United States, contributing billions of dollars annually to state coffers. It is also a common source of revenue for professional sports leagues and many public schools. The game offers the possibility of enormous financial gain, which attracts a certain type of person. But it’s important to understand how much of a gamble it really is.

Lotteries have a long history. They are described in the Bible — for example, the Old Testament has Moses instructing Moses to divide land among Israel’s people by casting lots — and they were commonly used during the Roman Saturnalia celebrations, with winners receiving goods and even slaves. They spread to the American colonies, where they became popular despite strict Protestant prohibitions on gambling.

Today, the vast majority of state lotteries are organized to raise money for education, medical care, public works and other services. But the modern incarnation of the lottery, which started in 1964 in New Hampshire and soon proliferated throughout the nation, was inspired by a different idea. It was marketed as an alternative to onerous tax increases and government cutbacks. It would make a fortune for a few, and it could eliminate the need for most taxes altogether.

Cohen argues that the modern era of lotteries began when growing awareness of all the money to be made by the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. The immediate post-World War II period was a time of relative prosperity, with most states able to expand their social safety nets without raising taxes very significantly. But by the nineteen-sixties, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War had eroded that arrangement. Many states faced the dilemma of either raising taxes or cutting services — options that were resoundingly unpopular with voters.

In response, a few states that had large social safety nets and no particular aversion to taxation passed legislation authorizing their first lotteries. These early lotteries were primarily regional, focused on northeastern states with larger populations and higher living standards that probably needed more revenue. Over the years, as these lottery laws have evolved, they’ve become broad-based and widespread, generating support from a range of specific constituencies including convenience store owners; lottery suppliers (who often donate heavily to state political campaigns); teachers (in those states in which lottery revenues are earmarked for them); and, of course, state legislators who quickly get used to having extra funds flowing into their coffers.

It’s easy to see why these special interests have shaped lotteries into such a powerful force, but it’s harder to appreciate the effect of that on the public. The message that state lotteries convey is that if you buy a ticket, whether you win or lose, it’s a good thing because the proceeds are going to help kids or something. That’s a pretty deceitful argument to make to the public.