The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which players buy tickets for the chance to win cash prizes. It’s a form of gambling, and many states ban it, but others endorse it. The prize money can be a small amount of cash or goods. Some states run their own lotteries, while others join multi-state games. Some people use the money to pay for medical expenses or other important needs. Others save it or invest it. In general, the chances of winning are slim.

The term “lottery” dates to the 15th century, when town records from the Low Countries mention public lotteries to raise money for building walls and town fortifications. But the concept probably originated much earlier. The earliest known lottery is found in the Chinese Han dynasty (2nd millennium BC). The Book of Songs includes a verse that references “the drawing of lots to determine a victim,” and other archaeological finds include keno slips from the Late Middle Ages (1450-1550).

In modern America, Cohen writes, the rise of state-sponsored lotteries coincided with a crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-seventies, inflation and health-care costs rose, pensions and job security eroded, and federal money flowed less freely to state coffers. As a result, balancing state budgets became more difficult. States could raise taxes or cut services, but both options were unpopular with voters.

Lotteries offered politicians a way to raise money without risking voter anger. By appealing to an interest in unimaginable wealth, the lottery also gave political opponents a moral cover for approving state-run gambling. They could argue, as a result, that people were going to gamble anyway, so governments might as well collect the profits.

In the early twentieth century, Cohen notes, American popular culture was enamored with tales of big-time winners and their outrageously lavish lifestyles. At the same time, our national prosperity was beginning to wane, and Americans began to feel more and more of the strains of the times: income disparity widened, pensions and job security eroded, government-funded social safety nets were cut back, and families struggled to get by on paychecks that didn’t stretch far enough.

In this environment, as state revenues began to dwindle, legalization advocates, unable to sell the lottery as a silver bullet that would float all of a state’s budget, began focusing on specific line items-usually education, but sometimes parks or aid for veterans. This new strategy made campaigns for the lottery a snap: A vote for the lottery was a vote for education, and vice versa.