The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game where people draw numbers in order to win a prize. It is a form of gambling that has become popular in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Some lotteries are for money, while others are for goods or services. In some cases, the money raised by a lottery is used for public works projects.

The origins of the lottery go back to ancient times. It was common in the Roman Empire — Nero was a fan — and is attested to in the Bible, where casting lots is mentioned for everything from choosing the next king of Israel to deciding who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion. The modern lottery is a bit more sophisticated than the ancient version, but it’s still essentially a game of chance in which winners are chosen by drawing or counting cards.

Lotteries can be a great way to raise money for things that need funding, such as roads, schools, and other projects. Some lotteries are run by state governments, while others are privately run and sponsored by businesses or nonprofits. Some of the most well known lotteries are financial, where participants pay a small amount for a chance to win a large jackpot. Many of these lotteries are considered addictive forms of gambling, but they also raise a substantial amount of money for important projects.

But even as this obsession with unimaginable wealth exploded, a national promise began to fade: Working Americans were no longer guaranteed a good pension or health care or enough to retire with comfort; home mortgage rates and rents rose, job security and wages diminished, and the income gap between rich and poor became ever wider. As a result, the dream of winning the lottery grew more and more out of reach.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, a new class of wealthy investors saw an opportunity to cash in on this new reality by purchasing lottery tickets and betting big on a winning combination of numbers. They figured that the more they paid, the more likely they were to win. This led to a massive expansion of the lottery industry: The odds of winning became absurdly low (one-in-three million, for instance, is now much lower than it was when the New York Lottery launched).

Cohen notes that this expansion happened just as politicians were scrounging up revenue through sales and income taxes to pay for vital social services. They argued that since gamblers were going to play anyway, the government might as well grab a share of their earnings.

This logic, which is not unlike that of the tobacco or video-game industries, was especially enticing to states struggling to balance budgets. Moreover, lottery ads and marketing campaigns were designed to be addictive; everything about the lottery was engineered to make players want to buy more tickets. And, of course, state lottery commissions were not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction: the math behind ticket prices and the look of the front of each one was designed to keep them coming back for more.