The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game in which players purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize based on the numbers randomly drawn by machines. The winners take home cash prizes or goods such as cars and houses. Americans spend about $80 billion annually on lottery tickets. However, the odds of winning are low. Moreover, winning the lottery can ruin your financial health if you don’t plan carefully for the windfall.

Lotteries were common in ancient times—Nero was a big fan, and they are documented in the Bible as well—but they became especially popular in America. Early American culture, Cohen argues, was defined by its aversion to paying taxes, so lotteries became an easy way for the government to raise money for public projects and other purposes. Lotteries funded everything from churches to Harvard and Yale, and the Continental Congress even tried to use one to fund the Revolutionary War.

Early lottery advocates argued that because people would gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the proceeds for itself. This argument dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling, but it gave moral cover for voters who approved state lotteries. They also hoped that, by filling state coffers without raising taxes, they could keep money in the pockets of average citizens.

As time went by, though, lottery revenues started to dwindle. Lottery advocates shifted gears, arguing that they should raise the top prize more often so as to lure more participants and generate more revenue. They also promoted the idea that a lottery’s societal benefit was in its entertainment value, and they began to promote jackpots that seemed bigger and more newsworthy.

The modern version of the lottery, which is what Cohen focuses on, really took off in the nineteen sixties, when growing awareness about all the money to be made by gambling combined with a crisis in state funding. Many states had begun to rely on lottery profits for a significant percentage of their budgets, and when those profits dropped off, the pressure to increase them mounted.

Among the ways that state governments increased the size of their jackpots was by making it more difficult to win smaller prizes. They also encouraged people to buy more tickets by introducing new types of games, such as pull-tabs. The games are a bit like scratch-offs, except the numbers are hidden behind perforated paper tabs that have to be broken open to reveal them.

People who play the lottery don’t always understand the odds, but they do know that the more they buy tickets, the higher their chances of winning. They also know that the entertainment value of playing the lottery can outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss, so the ticket purchases represent a rational choice. However, if you win, the disutility of a monetary gain can skyrocket—and stories abound of lottery winners who end up broke or divorced or even suicidal, often because their newfound wealth has corrupted their values or their relationships with family and friends.