The History of the Lottery


The lottery is an ancient activity, dating back as far as the Bible and Roman times. Throughout history, it has been deployed as a way to distribute property and slaves, as an alternative form of divination, or to reward good behavior. But today, it is more often a source of hope and dreams. Americans spend over $80 billion each year on lottery tickets. The odds of winning are low, but many people play hoping that they will win and that the jackpot will improve their lives. This is irrational behavior, but it is not unfathomable. People have a natural need for the thrill of possibility, and the chance to live their best life is an exciting prospect.

The first state-run lotteries in America began in 1964, and grew quickly. The enthusiasm for gambling and the dream of a new life coincided with a decline in prosperity for most Americans. The national income gap widened, pensions and job security shrank, health-care costs and unemployment rose, and the nation’s long-held promise that hard work would make everyone rich ceased to be true.

State-run lotteries grew in popularity because they were an alternative to higher taxes, which were politically unacceptable at the time. Lotteries could also help states bolster social safety nets and expand government spending, which were a necessity as inflation and welfare-state costs soared. But Cohen’s article reveals how this message was distorted by self-serving politicians and misguided voters.

Lottery advocates argued that state-run lotteries were a “morally sound” way for people to indulge in gambling and provide funds for state services without imposing an unfair burden on middle class and working class taxpayers. This argument, based on an illogical premise, ignored the fact that lottery profits were insufficient to offset even small increases in taxes or subsidize large state expenditures. It also brushed aside ethical objections to gambling, including the notion that governments should not profit from it.

For example, in the fifteenth century, cities and towns in the Low Countries held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. A prize of ten shillings was a sizable sum in those days, and the money was used for both purposes. The practice spread to England, where the Elizabethan monarchy chartered the nation’s first state lottery in 1623, announcing that the proceeds would go for “repairing of the walls and strength of the Realme.” Lotteries were soon legalized across America, and they thrived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as they continued to appeal to the public’s desire to gamble and dream. In addition to their commercial success, lotteries have reshaped America’s culture by promoting an image of limitless wealth and encouraging a fetishization of the rich. They have also fueled irrational behaviors, from buying a ticket to buying a luxury car, that may lead to financial disaster and a downward spiral. These trends have become even more pronounced in recent years, as the economic crisis has deepened and lottery revenues have risen.