The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling where prize money is allocated by chance. It is common in the United States and many other countries. It is often used to raise funds for public projects. It is sometimes seen as a good way to help the poor. It is not without its critics, who argue that it promotes gambling and does little for the poor.

The practice of drawing lots to allocate property and other rights has a long history, documented in ancient documents including the Bible. It was also a popular pastime at the Roman Saturnalia and was even used by Nero in his entertainments. Despite this, the lottery’s modern incarnation as a source of state revenue is comparatively recent and came about partly in response to a crisis in state finances.

When the first modern state lotteries were introduced, the nation was in the middle of a tax revolt. During this era, a number of states with relatively large Catholic populations and a general tolerance for gambling established lotteries to raise funds for their governments without increasing taxes.

In these states, the lottery was a popular alternative to raising taxes and cutting government services. It grew fast and by the nineteen-sixties had become a major source of state revenue.

By the nineteen-eighties, however, it had a less-than-stellar record. The reason, as Cohen explains, is that it became more and more difficult to win. The odds of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot got worse and, for the vast majority of players, the dream of becoming a millionaire began to fade. The nineteen-seventies and eighties witnessed a sharp decline in financial security for most working people, as wage gaps widened, pensions and health care costs rose, and the national promise that hard work would pay off eroded.

To combat the decline in popularity, lottery officials adopted a series of strategies. They tried to link the money raised by the games to a specific line item in a state’s budget—invariably education, but also things like public parks and aid for veterans. They also tried to keep the jackpots large and the prizes attractive, by limiting the number of winners and offering a high percentage of the ticket price as a prize.

But these moves were not enough to offset the growing perception that the lottery was no longer helping its intended public good and had begun to operate at cross-purposes with it. As a business, promoting gambling is not without its problems, and lottery commissions are not above taking advantage of the psychology of addiction to keep their games enticing for people to spend their hard-earned money. This is no different from the tactics of tobacco or video-game makers. But it isn’t normal for the state to engage in these strategies. By doing so, it squanders its credibility. And that’s the biggest problem of all.