The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine the winners of prizes, such as money. It is a popular pastime and has been used in various cultures throughout history. Often, lotteries are run to raise money for public projects. Some are run by states or cities, and others are private organizations. The first evidence of a lottery dates back to the Roman Empire. It was a common pastime among the wealthy, including Nero. Lotteries were also popular in the Middle Ages. There are many different theories regarding the origins of the lottery, but they all agree that it is an ancient pastime.

In the early modern era, the lottery became increasingly popular in Europe. It was used to raise money for everything from building town fortifications to funding charity for the poor. By the fourteenth century, the lottery was a staple of European life. In the seventeenth century, it spread to America. It quickly gained in popularity and was even used as a punishment for certain crimes.

By the nineteen-sixties, American state budgets were running into trouble as population growth and the cost of wars began to outpace revenue. In an era of soaring inflation, state officials struggled to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were unpopular with voters.

The problem with this argument, as Cohen points out, is that it assumes lottery play is a wholly structural decision and ignores the regressive nature of state-run lotteries. In fact, lottery spending is highly responsive to economic fluctuations; it increases as incomes fall and unemployment rises. It is also heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino. Moreover, while some lottery defenders argue that players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win, most admit that they do.

Those who play the lottery regularly do not take it lightly, and many spend a significant proportion of their incomes on tickets. In addition, most of them believe that they have a quote-unquote system about lucky numbers and lucky stores and times of day to buy tickets, all of which obscures the regressivity of the lottery’s financial underpinnings. And then there are the jackpots: a prize worth billions can alter any financial plan, turning an ordinary paycheck into an extraordinary fortune.

Rich people do play the lottery, of course—and some of them have won huge jackpots—but they tend to purchase fewer tickets than those earning less money. As a result, the lottery has a much greater impact on the poor than the wealthy. In response, legalization advocates have abandoned the idea of selling the lottery as a statewide silver bullet and begun promoting it as a way to fund a single line item—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks. The new message makes it easier to convince voters that a vote for the lottery is not a vote for gambling, but for a worthy government service.