The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game of chance in which participants pay a fee, draw numbers, and hope to win a prize. Some prizes are cash or goods, while others involve services such as school or job assignments. Regardless of the prize type, the basic idea is that the odds of winning are very low. Lotteries are a common way to distribute limited resources, from housing units in a subsidized apartment building to kindergarten placements at a public school. They can also be used to give people a chance to move up the social ladder, from becoming the president of a company to buying a house or car.

While there is a certain element of gambling to lotteries, they are often seen as a legitimate means of raising money for public services, and they have become a popular method for funding government projects, including schools, highways, roads, canals, and even wars. In the seventeenth century, it was quite common for the Dutch state to organize a lottery, and the practice spread to England, where it was embraced by the Protestant colonies as a painless form of taxation.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress attempted to raise funds for the war effort with a national lottery, but the scheme was abandoned. However, smaller public lotteries continued to grow in popularity as a mechanism for raising money for a variety of public uses, including construction of colleges. The Boston Mercantile Journal reported in 1832 that more than 200 lotteries had been held the previous year in eight states.

In the late-twentieth century, as America became increasingly prosperous, it was harder for many states to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services. Lotteries were a way for state governments to raise money with minimal public resistance, and they were especially popular in the Northeast and Rust Belt. People poured billions into lotteries, and they still do, even as critics have raised concerns about their addictiveness and social costs.

The modern incarnation of the lottery, as it is played in most countries today, began in 1964, when New Hampshire, a state that prides itself on being tax-averse, approved the first state-run lottery. It was followed by thirteen more in the next three years, and, by 1978, California passed Proposition 13, cutting property taxes by almost sixty per cent, inspiring other states to follow suit.

Cohen explains that the modern lottery is a product of two powerful forces: growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling and a shortage of state funding for social services, which was making it difficult to balance budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services. People have a natural tendency to gamble, and lotteries are a convenient way to do so, offering a small but real chance of winning big. For many Americans, that sliver of hope is enough to justify spending $80 billion each year on tickets.