The History of the Lottery

There are millions of people who purchase lottery tickets in the United States every week, and they contribute billions of dollars to state coffers each year. For many, it’s a low-risk investment. But for others, winning the lottery is more than just a chance at becoming rich — it’s a way to live a better life.

The lottery is a form of gambling where players pay a small fee for the right to draw numbers that are randomly generated by machines. Winners can receive anything from cash to a new car or even a house. It’s one of the world’s oldest pastimes, dating back centuries. The Old Testament mentions it, and Roman emperors used it for everything from divvying up property to giving away slaves. It was also a popular activity in the early American colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included land and slaves, and Benjamin Franklin organized lotteries to raise money for city defense.

In the immediate post-World War II period, lottery advocates pushed for legalization. They dismissed long-standing ethical objections, arguing that since people were going to gamble anyway, governments might as well pocket the profits. This argument had limits, Cohen notes, but it gave moral cover to people who approved of lotteries for other reasons.

Some states, he writes, wanted to avoid imposing onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. Others, especially those with generous social safety nets, were finding it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services — options that were unpopular with voters. Lotteries were an appealing alternative because they were less regressive than raising taxes or slashing social services.

The modern incarnation of the lottery, Cohen writes, really took off in the nineteen-sixties and eighties, during a time of economic decline and rising inflation. The prosperity of the post-World War II era had waned, and America’s long-standing national promise that hard work would make children better off than their parents ceased to be true for most.

That economic decline accelerated in the nineteen-nineties and the early years of this century. As income gaps widened, health-care costs rose, pensions and job security disappeared, and the housing market crashed, Americans became obsessed with winning the lottery. It was a way to dream about an improbable future while still hoping that the economy would pick up again and allow them to buy it. The results have been devastating for poor and working-class families. This obsession with the lottery has made it harder and harder to fulfill the enduring American dream of upward mobility.