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The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a game in which people buy tickets to win prizes such as cars, houses, and even college tuition. It is not only a form of gambling, but also an important source of revenue for government services and charities. The lottery has a long and rich history, spanning centuries and continents. The earliest European lotteries, Cohen writes, were used for entertainment during dinner parties and other Saturnalian revelries. The host would give each guest a piece of wood or other item with numbers written on it, and toward the end of the party there would be a drawing for prizes. Typically, the prizes would be articles of unequal value, and no one could be certain which items they’d win. Later, Roman emperors used lotteries to distribute slaves and property. By the fourteenth century, the practice was widespread in the Low Countries, where it was often used to build town fortifications and help the poor. It then spread to England, where it was embraced by the Reformation era. As a popular alternative to taxation, it helped finance everything from universities and churches to public works and the American Revolution.

During the nineteen-sixties, a combination of population growth and inflation began to put states in dire fiscal straits. Balancing budgets became difficult without raising taxes or cutting public services, and these options proved extremely unpopular with voters. The lottery, which offered a solution to these problems without alienating the electorate, gained in popularity throughout America.

While wealthy people do play the lottery (one Powerball jackpot exceeded a quarter of a billion dollars), they buy far fewer tickets than do poorer people. In fact, the wealthy spend on average only one per cent of their annual incomes on tickets, whereas those making less than fifty thousand dollars each year spend thirteen per cent. As a result, legalization advocates shifted the way they sold the lottery: instead of arguing that it would float most of a state’s budget, they now claimed that it would pay for just a single line item, invariably a popular and nonpartisan service—often education, but sometimes elder care or public parks.

This message obscures the regressivity of the lottery, but it also makes it harder to understand why so many people continue to play. People, Cohen argues, are drawn to the idea that they can get lucky and suddenly become rich. That, combined with a meritocratic belief that the lottery is an effective way to boost social mobility, drives many to play. In addition, state lottery commissions have been savvy in using marketing and math to keep players coming back for more. It is a strategy similar to those used by tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers—but, unlike those industries, it is regulated.