The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a state-run contest that promises to award big bucks to the winners. It can also refer to any contest that uses a random method of choosing participants, such as selecting students at schools or the candidates for a job position. No matter the type of lottery, it is often considered a game of chance and one with low odds of winning, much like finding true love or getting struck by lightning.

The story starts in a small village where people are gathering for one of their annual traditions – the lottery event. It is not a large gathering but there is still a buzz in the air, as they are all finishing their mundane everyday tasks and are ready to join together for this festive occasion. The setting is perfect to reveal the underlying tensions between the villagers.

As early as the fifteenth century, lottery games were widespread in the Low Countries where towns raised money to build town fortifications and help the poor. Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, lotteries became popular in England as well. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress used lotteries to raise funds for its military expeditions. In America, lotteries were a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who saw them as not much riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would become the essential principle: that most people “will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain.”

Cohen writes that the modern lottery’s rise began 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 growing population, rising inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, many states found it hard to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting public services. Both options were unpopular with voters, and thus state governments turned to lotteries as a way of generating revenue without the politically sensitive burden of raising taxes.

Lotteries have never generated the revenue that states hoped, but they have consistently won broad public support. They do so, in part, by framing themselves as a form of government-sponsored gambling, which is often viewed as less regressive than other forms of taxation. And, as research has shown, the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not appear to influence when it adopts or does not adopt a lottery.

As lottery revenues have grown, so have concerns about how the money is being spent. In recent years, critics have focused on the high percentage of tickets sold to minors and the potential for addiction and other social problems associated with the game. But, argues Cohen, these worries are largely misguided. The truth is that state-sponsored lotteries are a powerful force for good, and that they have changed the lives of millions of Americans in positive ways. They have created opportunities for people to achieve their dreams and have made a significant contribution to society.