The History of the Lottery


Many people play the lottery; on average, they spend about one per cent of their annual income on tickets. That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up. It is enough to give the impression that the lottery is an egalitarian form of gambling: rich and poor alike fork out a small sum, and some get a whole lot back. But the truth is a bit more complicated. Rich people buy fewer tickets than the poor (except when jackpots reach ten figures); they also spend less of their income on them. The result is that the lottery becomes more of a game for the middle class than for the working class.

The history of the lottery is a story of the rise and fall of gamblers’ hopes and dreams. Unlike the game of chance, where every spin of a die or roll of a dice represents an entirely random event, the outcome of a lottery is not only determined by luck but by human psychology as well. The machinations of the lottery appeal to our deepest desires, which are not only to win, but to win big.

It is a story that began in England and migrated into America despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In the early colonies, lotteries helped finance both colonization and religious persecution. They were even used as a way to settle disputes over land ownership and enslaved persons. In the seventeenth century, George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that included slaves as prizes; the winner, Denmark Vesey, later used his winnings to foment a slave rebellion.

By the nineteen-sixties, the growing popularity of lottery games collided with a crisis in state funding. With a growing population, rising inflation, and the costs of wars on the horizon, states found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries became the solution, as they promised to bring in money that would cover essential government services while avoiding the political risk of higher taxes and service cuts.

The first modern lottery was launched in New Hampshire in 1964. Other states quickly followed, and the national lottery soon dominated. In an era of tax revolts, lottery advocates no longer argued that a statewide lottery could float the entire state budget; instead, they focused on a single line item, usually a popular and nonpartisan service—education, veterans’ affairs, or public parks, for example.

This approach helped make legalization easier; a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but a vote to help children. It was a message that resonated with voters.

Yet the lottery is still a form of gambling, and it continues to be profitable for state governments. The reason lies in the way that lottery commissions market their products. They use psychological tricks—from the design of the tickets to the mathematics behind them—to keep players coming back for more. In this, they are no different from the strategies of tobacco and video-game manufacturers.