The History of the Lottery


In a lottery, numbers are drawn at random and prizes are awarded. Prizes are generally financial in nature but may also be goods or services. Some states and organizations use the lottery to raise money for public purposes. People often buy tickets in the hope of winning a large sum of money but there is no guarantee that they will win. Despite this, people continue to play the lottery and spend billions each year on tickets. Some of the money raised by the lottery is used for good causes but the majority of it is lost to the gambling industry. Many of the people who play the lottery believe that it is their last, best, or only hope of getting out of poverty. The odds of winning are incredibly low, but that does not stop people from spending money on tickets every week. It is important to remember that the lottery is a form of gambling and should be treated as such.

Lottery is an ancient game and has been employed for a variety of purposes over the centuries, including as a kind of party game at Roman Saturnalias or as a way of divining God’s will. It was also a common way of raising money for everything from civil defense to the construction of churches. The modern form of the lottery first appeared in the 17th century and it quickly became a popular means of raising funds for a variety of public uses.

The author of this article, Michael Cohen, argues that the modern popularity of the lottery began in the nineteen sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. As populations grew and inflation rose, states found it increasingly difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting social safety net programs that were popular with voters. Cohen writes that the lottery was an appealing solution because it allowed legislators to generate revenue “seemingly out of thin air” and relieved them of the necessity of raising taxes.

But the popularity of the lottery did not just coincide with a growing obsession with unimaginable wealth; it also occurred in a period when wages stagnated, pensions declined, and job security was virtually nonexistent. As the economy sagged, millions of working families came to rely on the lottery as their sole source of income and even more strove to maintain their status in the middle class by purchasing lottery tickets.

Lottery is a game of chance but it is also a kind of addiction. It is a game that lures people into spending large amounts of their hard-earned incomes on tickets in the desperate hope of winning, and it is a game that ultimately leaves them worse off than they were before they started playing. Trying to turn the lottery into something other than a form of gambling obscures this reality and allows its regressive nature to remain hidden.