The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery

People in the United States play lotteries to win a small prize. They contribute billions to state budgets each year. The odds of winning are very low, but some people believe that they will be the one to hit it big. Some even go so far as to make a life-altering decision based on a lottery ticket. While playing the lottery is fun, it’s not a good idea to invest too much in a chance of winning.

Historically, lotteries have been used to distribute wealth and power. They have also been used to allocate responsibilities and goods, such as kindergarten admission at a reputable school or housing in a subsidized apartment block. The process of distributing prizes by lottery can be useful when there is something that is limited but still highly demanded, such as an admission to a university or a vaccine for a fast-moving disease.

The first recorded lotteries were conducted in the Low Countries around the 15th century, with town records mentioning money prizes in Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges. But the modern lottery has only a few hundred years of history, and Cohen argues that it became more popular in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of the revenue potential of gambling collided with a crisis in state finances. As population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War swelled state coffers, it was increasingly difficult to balance a budget without raising taxes or cutting services, which were both highly unpopular with voters.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many states banned or restricted gambling, but in the nineteen-sixties, a “tax revolt” emerged that, Cohen writes, included lotteries. The popularity of the lottery grew alongside a decline in financial security for most working Americans. Wages stagnated, pensions and health-care costs rose, and the long-standing national promise that education and hard work would render children better off than their parents ceased to be true.

Although some argued that state-run lotteries were just another form of gambling, others promoted them because they believed that the profits would be spent on essential government services. Moreover, they dismissed moral objections by asserting that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well collect the proceeds. This argument had its limits, but it gave moral cover to some white voters who approved of the lottery, despite believing that Blacks would mainly play. Others supported the lottery because they wanted to bolster their own political ambitions. By the mid-twentieth century, lottery advocates had created a powerful political force that grew rapidly and shaped America’s public culture. The lottery is now a fixture of American society, and its influence has spread to other parts of the world. But how did it get to be this way? The answer, as Cohen argues, lies in our own peculiar obsession with dreaming of unimaginable riches. In the end, though, the lottery is about as likely to change people’s lives as a sudden stroke of luck.