The History of the Lottery

Many states and countries hold a lottery in which participants choose numbers in order to win a prize. Unlike the games people play at casinos or online, which often involve paying real money for the chance to win, state lotteries are government-run and involve only buying tickets. The prizes vary from state to state, but all have a similar format: participants mark the numbers they want to bet on on a special official lottery playlip. When they’re done, the playslip is returned to the retailer, who checks their selections and gives them a ticket. This is how the majority of lotteries work, and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular.

Choosing a winner by lot has long been a popular method of allocating property, dividing estates after a death, and awarding public works projects. The practice was common in ancient times, and the Bible contains dozens of examples. During the Roman Empire, it was an integral part of dinner parties and other entertainments, such as apophoreta, in which guests received pieces of wood with symbols on them, then drew for prizes during Saturnalian festivities.

In the early American colonies, lotteries were an important source of revenue for both private and public projects. They financed everything from the construction of churches and colleges to building canals and roads. Lotteries even helped fund the Revolutionary War. While there were some moral objections to them, they also served a practical purpose; colonial America was short on taxes and long on the need for infrastructure, so lotteries provided an attractive alternative to imposing new levies.

In modern America, the fetishization of lottery winning arose alongside the decline in financial security for working people. As income inequality widened and pensions and health-care costs rose, it became harder and harder to rely on the old national promise that hard work and education would make you richer than your parents. This obsession with unimaginable wealth matched the rise of state-run lotteries, which sprang up as “budgetary miracles” that allowed politicians to raise revenue without imposing tax increases.

A big reason for this rise was that, as Cohen points out, “a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a deep-seated aversion to taxation.” As people started understanding that if they bought a lottery ticket, there was a chance they might win, the odds began to seem more reasonable. In fact, as the prize amounts grew, so did the odds, which were usually one-in-three million or more. Nonetheless, the odds still seemed fantastic—and they paired with a sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, was going to win. This combination is an intoxicating mix for many people, which explains why we still buy millions of lottery tickets every year. It’s a bit like eating a carrot: You know it won’t taste good, but you can’t help yourself. The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery