A lottery is a gambling game in which a large number of tickets are sold and prizes (money, goods, or services) are awarded according to random chance. Lottery games have a long history and are very popular in many countries. In the US, state-sponsored lotteries account for more than half of all state gambling revenues. Lottery games also play an important role in the economy as a source of funding for public works, education, and medical care. The word “lottery” derives from a Latin term meaning “fall of the dice,” which may have been inspired by Old Testament stories of Moses drawing lots to determine inheritance or by Roman emperors’ practice of giving away property and slaves by lottery.
The earliest lottery games were probably organized by private individuals to provide gifts to guests at dinner parties. These were simple affairs: participants were given a ticket and the prizes were often items of unequal value, such as fancy dinnerware. In later times, lottery games became more complicated and were sometimes held in connection with charitable purposes or public works projects. The modern state-sponsored lotteries that we know today began in the 1960s as states searched for solutions to a growing budget crisis that did not involve raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were unpopular with voters.
State-sponsored lotteries rely on two messages to lure people to play: they promote the idea that playing the lottery is just like any other kind of gambling and they emphasize the enormous jackpots available in large-scale lotteries. Both messages obscure the regressivity of lotteries and the fact that they are designed to entice people who already have the financial resources to gamble away substantial portions of their incomes.
In early America, lotteries were a popular way to raise funds for public works projects. Harvard, Yale, and other American colleges were largely financed by lotteries, as was the Continental Congress’ attempt to fund the Revolutionary War through one. But they were also tangled up with the slave trade in unpredictable ways: George Washington managed a Virginia-based lottery that offered human beings as prizes, and Denmark Vesey won a lottery prize of enslaved Africans in South Carolina and used his winnings to foment a slave revolt.
Cohen argues that lotteries began in the Northeast, among states with larger social safety nets that maybe needed extra revenue. But he focuses most of his story on their evolution in the nineteen-sixties, when rising population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War made balancing budgets harder for states that had built up generous social safety nets.
He writes that the first state-sponsored lotteries were a response to growing awareness of all the money that could be made in the gambling business. But he contends that the real motivation for most players was simply that they liked to gamble. In any case, lottery promotions dangle the promise of instant riches, and that’s enough to draw a lot of people in.