The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a system for awarding prizes by chance, often with rules designed to ensure the fairness of the process. It is a form of gambling, but unlike a casino where winnings are based on mathematical calculations, the results of a lottery are purely random. For this reason, a lottery is not considered to be a game of skill. The chances of winning a prize in a lottery are much lower than those of becoming an astronaut, becoming president of the United States or even making it to the top of your profession.

Lottery is an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years. Its roots are attested to in the Bible—Moses was told to divide land by drawing lots, and Roman emperors used the casting of lots for everything from giving away slaves to divining Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion. Lotteries also became a common practice in medieval Europe, where they were used to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor.

Cohen’s story begins in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with a ballooning population and rising inflation, balancing the budget became increasingly difficult for many states, especially those that provided generous social safety nets. Raising taxes or cutting services would enrage voters, so they turned to the lottery for help.

Early Americans were divided about whether a lottery was morally wrong, but the majority embraced it anyway. Those who did were “dismissing long-standing ethical objections to gambling” and grasping what, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, would become the lottery’s essence: that most people “prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning nothing.”

It wasn’t just gamblers who grew addicted to the odds: Lottery revenue soon surpassed federal spending on agriculture and public works. It became, as Cohen writes, “a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who viewed it as not much riskier than farming, and George Washington, who managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings.”

A lottery’s profits can go to any number of things, from building schools or bridges to boosting the general fund and paying for roadwork and police forces. The vast majority, though, goes back to the participating states. Each has complete control over how it uses the proceeds, but they tend to focus on programs that are meant to help disadvantaged residents. These may include providing support centers for lottery addiction or recovery, and enhancing other social welfare services like free transportation and rent rebates.

The lottery doesn’t work on its own, of course; there are a whole host of workers involved behind the scenes designing scratch-off tickets and recording live drawing events. A portion of the winnings goes to pay for these jobs and the overhead costs associated with the lottery’s system. But even more important to the lottery’s success is a simple truth: The better the odds are, the more people play.