The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling where people pay a small amount of money, usually a dollar or less, to win a prize. Prizes are usually cash or some other kind of merchandise. Most states have lottery games. The games have different rules and prizes, but they all have one thing in common – they are based on chance.

In the United States, the most common way to win a lottery prize is by matching numbers or symbols that are randomly selected by a machine. People who play the lottery spend billions of dollars each year and dream about being the next big winner. But why do they continue to do this despite knowing the odds of winning are very low? It’s not because they’re irrational or don’t understand the math; it is because for some, winning the lottery is their last, best hope of a new life.

The first state-run lottery was established in 1964 in New Hampshire. Since then, the game has become an essential part of America’s culture. The popularity of the lottery corresponds with a sharp decline in the financial security of most Americans. In the nineteen-sixties and accelerating in the nineteen-eighties, income gaps widened, job security eroded, health care costs climbed, and pensions dwindled. As a result, many families rely on the lottery as a source of income.

Cohen’s history of the lottery begins in early America, where, he writes, “exigent needs collided with the country’s aversion to taxation.” This combination of factors, including an acute shortage of public works money, led to the invention of lotteries as a way of raising funds for everything from church construction to civil defense. The Continental Congress used a lottery to help finance the Revolutionary War.

In his book, Cohen discusses how the lottery became a tool for political manipulation. Lottery advocates no longer claimed that a statewide lottery would float all of a state’s budgetary needs; instead, they focused on a single line item, often education but sometimes elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This narrower approach made it easier for them to persuade voters that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but a vote for a worthwhile cause.

For Cohen, the biggest problem with this strategy is that it distracts from the fact that most state lottery proceeds go to a mix of prizes, administrative expenses, and profits for the organizers. As a result, the average jackpot is only about twenty times larger than the cost of a ticket. And a small proportion of the proceeds goes to paying out the winnings, which is why most lottery winners end up broke in a very short time. This is a tragedy for those who have played the lottery, but it is also a profound waste of taxpayers’ dollars. If the government wishes to continue using lotteries as a way to raise money for important purposes, it should at least make sure that the prizes are fair and reasonable in terms of their probability of winning.