The History of the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which a ticket holder wins a prize by matching numbers drawn at random. The prize money is usually monetary, but it can also be intangible, such as goods or services, or even an opportunity to serve on a jury. In the United States, the lottery raises billions of dollars each year from people who purchase tickets. Although the odds of winning are low, many people continue to play for the hope that they will win big one day. In his article, Cohen explains how the lottery became so popular and suggests some reasons why it may have failed to satisfy its original advocates.

The roots of the modern lottery date to the fifteenth century, when public lotteries were first common in the Low Countries as a way of raising funds for town fortifications and helping the poor. The lottery became more widespread in England after the Revolutionary War, when state governments struggled to balance budgets while satisfying an increasingly demanding population and the cost of fighting a war. Lotteries were promoted as a solution to this fiscal crisis because they raised money without inflaming antitax voters.

But critics point out that the prize money in a lottery is not actually free. In reality, each person who buys a ticket is effectively paying a “hidden tax” that pays for a variety of state expenses and services. The money collected by lotteries is used for everything from public parks and education to prisons and welfare. Moreover, because the prizes are generally of unequal value, a lottery can result in inequality between different citizens.

To counter this, advocates of the lottery began to change their message. Instead of arguing that the lottery would float all or most of a state’s budget, they began to suggest that it could pay for a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan – education, for example – and that by voting to legalize the lottery, voters were not supporting gambling, but rather a service that they valued.

In the end, Cohen argues, this approach was ultimately unsuccessful. While it may have worked in New Hampshire, where the modern lottery was launched in 1964, other states were struggling to balance their budgets and competing with one another for federal aid in a period of tax revolt. In the late twentieth century, as the nation grappled with rising inflation and a costly war, states began to find it difficult to raise enough taxes or cut services to meet their needs. This, combined with the fact that the lottery was perceived as a hidden tax, led to its eventual demise. Despite its decline, however, the lottery remains popular with many Americans, and it continues to be promoted in a manner that obscures its regressive nature. As a result, it still contributes to inequality in the United States. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is worth keeping in mind when considering the future of this popular activity.