The History of Lottery


Lottery is a game in which people purchase a ticket, or multiple tickets, and hope to win a prize based on the numbers that they guess correctly. In the modern era, it is common for players to choose their own numbers or allow computers to randomly select them for them. They can also pay extra to enter a bonus round in which they can try to match additional numbers and increase their chances of winning the grand prize.

Lotteries date back thousands of years. They were common in the ancient world, were a regular part of the entertainments at Roman Saturnalia parties (Nero was quite fond of them), and are attested to in the Bible. They are even mentioned in a sermon given by Jesus.

But it was the late twentieth century that truly revolutionized the lottery. During that era, states were in desperate need of new revenue sources to maintain existing services without enraging anti-tax voters, and they found the answer in state-run lotteries. In the beginning, these lotteries were hailed as budgetary miracles, allowing politicians to raise large sums of money seemingly out of nowhere.

In the heyday of this lottery revolution, it was common for proponents to argue that since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well reap the profits. This argument, which has its limits, was effective at dismissing long-standing ethical objections to gambling, but it masked more troubling motivations.

Cohen writes that the prevailing message was that lotteries were good because they allowed people to feel like they were performing a civic duty—buying a lottery ticket was a kind of “voluntary tax.” This premise, coupled with the fact that many states promoted their lotteries in neighborhoods that were disproportionately poor and Black, gave the appearance that the money that came from these games was used for noble purposes.

As the economy slowed and state budgets began to shrink, this story became increasingly difficult to sustain. By the mid-twentieth century, the public was tired of being urged to “support their local schools, libraries, and hospitals by playing the lotto.”

In an attempt to save face, some state legislators started to promote lottery schemes as “tax relief,” or a way to reduce taxes without affecting popular services. But the truth was that, as they were proving all too often, even this solution had its limits.