The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers or symbols are drawn at random to determine winners. Participants pay a small amount of money for a ticket and hope to win a large sum by matching the winning numbers or symbols. The lottery has been around for centuries and is popular in most countries, although it is not legal to operate in all states. It is a way for governments to raise money without raising taxes or cutting services, which are unpopular with voters. It is also a popular form of sports betting.

While some people simply like to gamble, there is a larger issue at play here. State-sponsored lotteries are a major marketing tool for gambling addiction, and they make no attempt to hide the fact that winning a prize requires you to gamble in order to keep your prize. They are also a way for states to promote the idea that they are doing something positive for society by offering this vice, even though it only accounts for a minor share of overall state revenue.

The 1948 short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson takes place in a remote American village, a world where tradition is central to daily life. Jackson uses a plethora of symbols to tell the story of the lottery, and its undercurrents of violence and danger.

In the early American colonies, lotteries were a common form of financing both private and public ventures. They helped finance churches, colleges, canals, bridges, and roads. In addition, they were used to give away land and slaves. Despite these early successes, lotteries have not always been considered a morally acceptable means of raising funds, and many Christians opposed them.

By the nineteen-sixties, a growing awareness of the big money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With a rapidly expanding population and spiraling inflation, state budgets became increasingly out of control. Raising taxes or cutting services would have been unacceptable to voters, so legislators started looking for other ways to balance their books. The result was the rise of the state-sponsored lottery.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery emerged when state leaders realized that, as long as the prizes were generous and the marketing was effective, lottery revenues could cover one line item in the state budget. Usually this was education, but sometimes it was other government services that were popular and nonpartisan—like elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This narrower focus allowed legalization advocates to dismiss long-standing ethical objections to gambling, and it gave voters a convenient moral justification for their support of the lottery.

In the United States, more than 50 percent of Americans buy a lottery ticket every year. But the majority of that money comes from a small group of players who are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. These groups are also disproportionately affected by gambling addiction. This skews the data on how beneficial lottery revenues are to states, and it calls into question whether states should be in the business of promoting such a dangerous vice.