The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a chance to win a prize by paying for a ticket and selecting a group of numbers that are randomly spit out by machines. The prizes vary from cash to goods, services, and even real estate. Unlike some other forms of gambling, which are illegal in most states, lotteries are regulated and have strict rules about who can participate and how much money is allowed to be spent on tickets.

Although the odds of winning a lottery are very low, millions of people purchase tickets every year. They spend more than $80 billion, and most of them will never see their dream of a new life come true. But for some, the lottery is a way to pay for everything from credit-card debt to college tuition.

The history of the lottery goes back to the medieval period, but it was only in the modern era that it became a widespread form of gambling. Its spread accelerated after World War II, when many states needed to expand their array of social safety nets without having to impose especially onerous taxes on the middle and working class. It also helped that, as Cohen notes, the early years of this era coincided with a growing sense among Americans that their long-held national promise that a little hard work would let them retire rich, live comfortably, and leave something to their children and grandchildren had been lost.

While it is not clear how common the practice of buying a ticket to enter a lottery really was in medieval times, by the fifteenth century it had become a part of the culture of the Low Countries, where towns held public lotteries to build town fortifications and help the poor. Those lotteries were so popular that they helped finance Europe’s early colonization of America, despite the Protestant aversion to gambling and even dice.

Advocates of state-run lotteries in the early twentieth century made a simple argument: If people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect its profits. That line of reasoning, which had its limits—by the same logic, government should also sell heroin—was still effective in overcoming the ethical objections that had long hampered gambling’s legalization.

As the lottery’s appeal grew, advocates changed their strategy. Instead of arguing that the lottery would float the entire budget, they focused on a specific line item—invariably education, but sometimes elder care or public parks. This was a more persuasive argument to the anti-tax electorate, and it shifted the discussion from whether a lottery should be legalized to how it should be used. This is how the lottery came to be a popular source of funding for everything from subsidized housing units to kindergarten placements. In the process, it transformed American politics and society. But it left a dark underbelly: an obsession with the improbable and often insidious hope that somebody, somewhere, will get lucky. -Joe Klein, New York Magazine