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The History of the Lottery

Lotteries are games of chance, but they also serve a useful public purpose: They provide state governments with an effortless and painless source of revenue. As Cohen explains, they were originally conceived as “budgetary miracles, the chance for states to make money appear out of thin air.” But in modern America, state lottery profits have been more than offset by the rising cost of education, social services, and infrastructure, and their appeal has declined.

The history of lottery is a long and colorful one, with roots stretching back millennia. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot, and Roman emperors used the practice to give away property and slaves. In the seventeenth century, British colonists brought the game to America, and it quickly spread across the country, even though many Protestants disapproved of gambling.

Early lotteries were mostly private enterprises, a way for people to play for cash prizes and avoiding the church’s prohibition on dice and cards. But as their popularity grew, some public agencies began to run them. In the fourteenth century, for example, the Low Countries began to hold public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications, town improvements, and charity. Tickets could be purchased for ten shillings, a substantial sum at that time, and winners were guaranteed immunity from arrest.

In the modern era, lottery mania first took off in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with a rising population and the burgeoning cost of health care, education, and the Vietnam War, many states found that balancing their budgets required raising taxes or cutting services—both options that proved highly unpopular with voters.

Advocates of public lotteries argued that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well collect the profits. This argument was flawed, as Cohen demonstrates, but it gave moral cover to politicians who approved the games.

The popularity of the lottery grew so great that by the late eighties, state governments were using them to fund almost all of their public programs. But as lottery players shifted to new games, such as scratch-offs and pull-tabs, they diluted the pool of potential prize winners and lowered the probability that any given ticket would win.

The most popular way to play the lottery is still through the Powerball, which is available in 44 states and Washington, D.C. But scratch-offs and pull-tabs have a much lower ticket price than the big jackpots of Powerball, making them accessible to more Americans. And although people from all backgrounds and incomes play the lottery, disproportionately lower-income Americans—especially men and nonwhites—make up a large portion of the player base. As a result, their winnings tend to be much smaller than those of the top 20 or 30 percent of players. This disparity has fueled calls for reform. In addition, a small but powerful group of high-income people have come to dominate the lottery’s prize distribution, with a few hundred millionaires and a few billionaires buying most of the prizes.