The History of the Lottery


The lottery, which pays out big prizes to those who match a series of numbers, has become a staple in American life. The average household spends about one per cent of its income on tickets. The chances of winning are slim, but the jackpots can be enormous. Anyone who has watched a Powerball or Mega Millions drawing knows that the advertising is designed to keep people coming back for more. It’s a strategy that would be familiar to tobacco or video-game companies, but it happens under the banner of government.

Lotteries were first introduced in Europe in the 1500s by towns seeking to raise money for defense or aid the poor, and they became increasingly popular after Francis I opened the door to private lotteries in 1520. The Continental Congress used a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War, and public lotteries were common in England and America before the nineteenth century, with the goal of raising “voluntary taxes” that wouldn’t rouse an anti-tax populace.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery grew out of the need to fund state governments, which were facing huge budget deficits during the nineteen-sixties, as inflation accelerated and the Vietnam War drained their coffers. States could subsidize their social safety nets or cut services, but neither option was particularly popular with voters.

So, he writes, they began to offer the alluring dream of instant riches. This obsession with unimaginable wealth coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans: Incomes stagnated, job security and pensions were eroded, and health-care costs and unemployment rose. Those conditions created a climate in which many people felt their only chance of getting ahead was the lottery.