The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game where people pay for tickets and hope that their numbers will match those randomly drawn. The prizes vary, but are usually cash. The odds of winning are low, but the entertainment value is high enough to make purchasing a ticket a rational decision for many. It was once popular in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan), and it is mentioned in the Bible, where drawing lots is used for everything from who gets to keep Jesus’ clothes after his crucifixion to choosing the next king of Israel. Today, the lottery is common in Europe and America, and can be played online or in physical premises.

Lotteries have several requirements that must be met before they are legal. First, there must be some way to record the identities of the bettors and their stakes. This is often done by requiring that the bettors write their names and numbers on the tickets they purchase, or by buying a numbered receipt that is deposited with the lottery organization for subsequent shuffling and possible selection in the drawing. The tickets must also be able to be distinguished from one another, so that the winner can be determined.

Finally, there must be a prize pool. The pool must be large enough to cover the costs of organizing and promoting the lottery, and a percentage must be deducted as taxes or profits for the lottery organization. The remainder must be big enough to attract potential bettors and ensure a high turnover rate. This is normally achieved by limiting the number of large prizes and increasing the frequency of smaller ones.

In the late-twentieth century, states were desperately seeking ways to balance their budgets that would not anger an increasingly antitax electorate. Lotteries seemed like a solution, and they spread rapidly from the northeast to the south and west. The popularity of the lottery was fueled by the idea that anyone with a little bit of luck could win a great deal of money, and the enticing promise that the winners could use their winnings to live the American dream.

Unfortunately, as Cohen explains, this dream was not a realistic one. The era’s obsession with lottery jackpots coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. Salaries stagnated, pensions and job security were eroded, health-care costs rose, and the old American promise that hard work and education would guarantee a better life than the one enjoyed by your parents largely disappeared. In the end, lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the games as a silver bullet for state budgets, ginned up other strategies. They started to argue that a lottery could fund a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan, such as education or parks or veterans’ aid. This made it much easier to campaign for legalization, as a vote for the lottery was seen as a vote in favor of public services.

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