The History of Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which people bet a small amount for the chance to win a larger one. In many countries, governments run lotteries to raise money for public projects and services. While some critics of lottery argue that it is addictive, others believe that it raises money for good causes and provides jobs. A lottery is a draw of numbers that produces one or more winners, and the winnings can be anything from cash to goods to houses. The first lottery is believed to have been held in ancient Egypt, though the exact date is unclear. In later centuries, Roman emperors and the monarchs of England regularly ran lotteries to give away land and other prizes to their subjects. In the eighteenth century, American colonists used lotteries to fund their Revolutionary War effort, and Alexander Hamilton praised them because they allowed “everybody to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”

In the nineteenth century, state governments were growing more concerned about balancing their budgets as populations rose and costs increased. They were faced with the dilemma of raising taxes or cutting services, and they could not afford to do both. Those in the early nineteen-sixties who approved of lotteries saw them as “budgetary miracles, ways for states to make money appear out of thin air.”

The new advocates dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling. They reasoned that people would gamble anyway, so a government might as well collect the profits. They also pointed out that gambling tended to benefit lower-income voters, whose support they needed to stay in power. In fact, Cohen writes, the lottery’s roots in the colonies are tangled up with slavery—George Washington managed a lottery that gave away human beings, and a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and used the prize money to foment rebellion.

Rich people do play the lottery, and Cohen notes that the biggest jackpot ever, a quarter of a billion dollars, was won by three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut. However, the poor buy far more tickets than the wealthy (although they spend a much smaller percentage of their income doing so). Moreover, lottery advertising is often targeted at communities that are disproportionately Black or Latino.

Most of the money outside your winnings ends up back in the participating state’s general fund, where it can be spent on anything from helping those who struggle with gambling addiction to enhancing roadwork and police forces. State governments are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction, either; everything from the look of scratch-off tickets to the math behind them is designed to keep you coming back for more. In the end, this is no different than the tactics used by cigarette companies or video-game manufacturers.