The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine the winner of a prize. In this way, it is different from other forms of gambling, such as the stock market, which involves people making informed decisions about the future. In the lottery, participants pay a small sum of money to have the chance to win a large amount of money. The word lottery comes from the Latin loteria, which means “drawing of lots” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). The game has been around for centuries. In fact, some of the oldest recorded drawings date back to the Chinese Han dynasty, between 205 and 187 BC. In colonial America, many private and public projects were funded by lotteries, including roads, canals, colleges, churches, libraries, and even towns and cities.

In the early twenty-first century, as Cohen notes, states began to introduce lotteries as a way to generate revenue without enraging an anti-tax electorate. This development coincided with a decline in the financial security of middle- and working-class Americans. Incomes stagnated or fell, health-care costs exploded, and the long-standing national promise that hard work and education would allow children to do better than their parents ceased to hold true.

Lotteries appealed to this anxiety by promising not just a huge jackpot but also the chance to avoid paying taxes for good. In addition, they could provide a quick fix to state budget crises by diverting some of the public’s attention from supposedly “wasteful” spending on welfare and social programs.

For a few decades, these arguments worked. But by the late nineteen-seventies, it had become clear that the lottery’s popularity grew in tandem with the erosion of Americans’ financial security. As the wealth gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security crumbled, unemployment and poverty rose, and government spending on welfare programs and social services decreased, Americans began to feel that life was not fair.

The odds of winning the lottery depend on the number of tickets sold and the size of the jackpot. If the jackpot is too large, few people will play, and ticket sales will fall. On the other hand, if the odds are too great, people will not buy tickets at all. To balance these competing interests, some states change the odds by adding or subtracting a ball from the pool of balls that will be drawn. For example, if there are fifty balls instead of forty-eight, the chances of winning will increase to 1,009,460:1. In addition, some states require that players register with them and pay a subscription fee. This fee may be used to fund the jackpot, the advertising expenses for the lottery, or both.