The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game wherein players pay for a ticket and select a group of numbers or symbols, have them randomly spit out by machines, and win prizes if their selections match those chosen by chance. It is one of the oldest forms of gambling, and in its most modern incarnation it is an enormous industry. The odds of winning a lottery prize are generally extremely low, but that does not prevent many people from playing the game. In fact, the average person buys a ticket eight times per year.

While there are some who argue that the lottery is a form of unjustified exploitation, most people find the experience pleasurable. Whether they play for a grand prize or just a few dollars, they feel the thrill of having a little bit of luck and winning something nice. Moreover, while the chances of winning a lottery are very small, it is not impossible to win, and some people do become millionaires through this means.

In the fourteenth century, lotteries became popular in the Low Countries, and by the seventeenth they were widespread. They were not only used to raise money for town fortifications but also as a way to fund charity and provide free public services. They were considered a painless form of taxation, and the Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij is the world’s oldest lottery.

But, as Cohen recounts, the national obsession with winning the lottery began to collide with a crisis in state funding in the late nineteen-sixties. Amid soaring population growth and accelerating inflation, state budgets exploded, making it increasingly difficult to balance the books without raising taxes or cutting social-safety programs. In a nation founded on the principle of opportunity, that seemed like an unpalatable choice.

Fortunately, a solution emerged. Lottery proceeds could be used to finance a variety of government programs, and the money outside the jackpots went back to participating states. Individual states were free to decide how to use this revenue, but they tended to invest it in everything from enhancing roadwork and bridgework to funding support groups for problem gamblers and helping poor families afford housing and food.

Another strategy that lottery commissions employed was to make the odds of winning ever more insurmountable. As Cohen writes, “Instead of one-in-three-million odds, the odds became one-in-thirty-five-million; the odds for a three-million-dollar prize were now five to one.”

In the end, the only thing that really matters to most lottery players is the money they have in their pockets. And this is no surprise, as the whole lottery system, from ad campaigns to the look of the tickets, is designed to keep people coming back for more. In that respect, it is no different from the tactics of tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers, though in a government setting.