The History of the Lottery

Lotteries have long been a popular way to distribute something coveted by many people but difficult to produce. Whether it’s kindergarten admission at a desirable school, an apartment in a sought-after neighborhood, or a spot on a research team working on a new cancer vaccine, the process of drawing lots can give a wide range of people a fair chance of winning. It can also, though, skew results to favor those with the money and power to purchase tickets and promote the game.

In modern times, states started running lotteries in the nineteen-sixties as a solution to a growing problem: balancing state budgets without raising taxes or cutting services was becoming increasingly difficult. With a burgeoning population and rising inflation causing the national economy to slow down, government revenue was dwindling; this made it especially difficult for states to provide a robust social safety net. Luckily, the lottery proved an incredibly effective way to raise funds.

The first state-sponsored lotteries in the modern sense of the word began to appear in Europe in the fifteenth century, with towns attempting to raise money for town fortifications and to assist the poor. The word “lottery” probably derives from the Dutch verb lote, meaning to divide or separate by lot; early modern English used the same word for other random procedures, including military conscription and commercial promotions in which property was given away by a random procedure.

Regardless of how the term is derived, lottery is generally considered gambling because the chance to win a prize requires payment of a consideration in exchange for a chance to receive it. This consideration may be anything, from a piece of wood to the freedom of a former slave; in fact, the prize in one lottery managed by George Washington included human beings. While some governments ban the practice, others endorse it and promote it through advertising campaigns that use the psychology of addiction to keep players coming back for more.

Lotteries have long been tangled up with inequality and slavery. Even Alexander Hamilton, a champion of free markets, recognized that the lottery was unfair to poorer citizens because they would have to spend much more on a ticket in order to win a small amount of money, and would thus have little reason to play at all.

Rich people do play the lottery, of course; they account for more than half of all Powerball winners and spend a smaller percentage of their income on tickets (except when jackpots reach ten figures). But Cohen shows that state lottery commissions are not above using tactics more commonly associated with tobacco and video-game manufacturers to keep players hooked. They promote the idea that playing is fun and that winning is a possibility; they don’t disclose the regressive nature of their profits, or how much Americans are spending on tickets. As a result, Cohen concludes, the lottery is an insidious source of financial stress for millions of people.