The History of the Lottery


Lotteries are games of chance that award prizes to players for a small stake (usually a few dollars) based on the drawing of numbers. They’re not terribly different from other games of chance, like rolling dice or playing poker, and they’ve been around for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, Nero liked to play them for property and slaves, and they are widely used in the Bible, notably to distribute land and other goods to the Israelites and to decide who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion.

In early America, lotteries were an important part of the public sphere, providing money for everything from roads to churches and colleges. The prizes ranged from livestock to a few thousand acres of farmland, but were usually quite modest compared with the amount of money raised. Lotteries were also a popular party game and, as with gambling in general, could be tangled up in slavery—George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery that enabled him to purchase his freedom.

The heyday of the modern state lotteries began in the nineteen-sixties, when the growing awareness of all that could be won on a scratch-off ticket collided with a crisis in state budgets. As inflation, welfare costs, and the cost of the Vietnam War accelerated, it became harder and harder for states to balance their books without raising taxes or cutting services—both options were extremely unpopular with voters.

State officials turned to lotteries for a solution, and they were a success. In fact, Cohen argues, they were “budgetary miracles,” allowing governments to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air without the voters’ wrath. The only downside was that the more successful state lotteries became, the more people wanted to play them, resulting in ever-increasing odds against winning.

To the defenders of the lottery, this is just an inextricable human urge to gamble; everybody knows that it’s unlikely that they’ll win, but they still enjoy playing. But this naive assumption ignores the truth, which is that lottery spending is highly responsive to economic fluctuation: It increases as incomes fall, unemployment grows, and poverty rates increase. In addition, advertising for lotteries is most heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

So, what is it that lottery players are really buying? Cohen argues that it’s the hope of getting something for nothing—a small glimmer of belief, however irrational or mathematically impossible, that they might be one of the lucky ones. And, that’s a powerful motivation, especially for people who can’t afford to play any other game of chance. The ugly underbelly of the lottery, then, is that it dangles the false promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. For these people, it may be their only way up. The odds might be one-in-three million, but to them they feel like a long shot. And who wouldn’t want that?